Babies, medians and reflections

January 9-10

Pack and early breakfast at the Inn. Joe and Daniel Kwarteng come to say goodbye.

Drive with Kipharts and Olopades to the Kumasi Clinic, a maternal health care clinic that the Kipharts and, through their efforts, a foundation in Spain have supported, including construction of a new building an a modern lab. Here’s our favorite driver, Sammy.

The Kioharts contact at the Clinic was Dr. Annie Opuku, a Madagascar-born, Russian-trained doctor, with a wonderful and caring heart. They had supported Dr. Annie on an ad hoc basis, responding to her requests from time to time over many years. With the Kipharts having changed their efforts to go through the Olopades, far more rigor and accounting was required, and Dr. Annie was not able to do this. Recently, Dr. Annie has left the clinic and is working elsewhere. The whole thing is complicated by the close personal relationship between Dr. Annie and the rest of us. She attended both dinners in Kumasi, the second with her son.

Dr. Ansong, a Ghanaian doctor who is working with the Olopades on projects in Ghana set up a meeting for us with the new acting director of the Clinic. Dr. Annie inserted herself into this meeting, which made for real awkwardness. We discussed current work in the Clinic. The Olopades feel strongly that the Clinic is missing out on a great source of revenue, by failing to market it’s excellent and very price-effective lab services to the outside. We also discussed possibilities of partnering with the Clinic, through Dr. Ansong, to provide health services in some of the villages that the Kipharts are supporting. Exactly what form that partnership might take needs to be explored.

We toured around the maternity clinic, early child care area and the lab, as reflected in some of the photos below.

Clinician, Acting Director and Sola, Dr. Ansong in back, in lab

Dr. Ansong and Funmi in lab

Dr. Annie and brand new twins

We left the clinic by 10AM for the long drive back to Accra in two separate cars. We and the Kipharts are leaving five hours after the Olopades, but decided we’d head in at the same time so that we could stop at the Kofi Anan art gallery, which we have visited with the Kipharts on two other trips. The plan was for the two cars to meet as we entered Accra, transfer people and luggage between cars and then go our separate ways.

What had been a relatively dull day became a good deal more exciting when a big traffic tie-up began (slightly) to threaten the Olopades making their plane. To avoid the traffic jam, Sammy drove the car with the women over a median strip in the highway, and phoned our driver, telling him to do the same. Our driver was understandably reluctant to do so, as the median was not a small one, the curbs were high and the oncoming traffic into which he would have to turn swift. Eventually Dick and Sola coaxed him into doing it, and he was promptly pulled over to the side of the road by a police car with its lights flashing. Two incredulous and irate police officers shouted at our poor driver, but eventually allowed him to go, without ticket or bribe, probably because Dick and I were in the car.

The Olopades continued to the airport, making it in plenty of time, and we and the Kipharts enjoyed an interesting 45 minutes at the gallery, doing only very minimal damage. We were dropped at the airport and went to the restaurant, where I had an excellent cheeseburger and fries, making me feel almost home. Got through ticketing, immigration and security quickly, which is always the case when you have three and a half hours to spare. We’re currently relaxing in an airline lounge, awaiting our flight to Frankfurt.


Reflections on the trip.

At breakfast on our last day, Funmi said that her favorite part of the previous day was the chief in the last village we visited. When I asked her why, she said “because he greeted the Kipharts by saying, ‘I remember you. You came here nine years ago, and you gave us clean water.’ That’s why you do this work, ” Funmi said, passionately. “You may not remember the village (when the Kipharts saw the village name on Alex’s itinerary, they had not recalled going there), but he remembered you. You do not know who you are going to touch, but they will remember you and what you did. And when you’re bouncing up and down on that bumpy, dusty road, you may think, ‘why do I need to be doing this, when I could be so much more comfortable back in Chicago.’ But if you can touch one person every day, then you have really done something.”

These trips indeed take us out of our comfort zone. Physically, they are difficult, and they don’t get easier as the years pass. Because of poor water pressure in Kumasi, Carol and I learned a new skill–taking a bath with half a bucket of warm water.  But much more than physically, they take us out of our cultural comfort zone.

You learn how people different from you in so many ways share a common humanity. You see the strength of the human spirit, enduring–no, more than enduring, rejoicing–under conditions that would be almost unimaginable to you. When you travel the dusty, bumpy road, you are reminded that this is the road that people in the village must traverse to get to a hospital, and not in air conditioned SUVs.  You imagine what these dirt roads are like in the rainy season and wonder how children in one village can get to the nearest secondary school, five miles away.

In other words, you learn of how privileged a life you lead and of the tremendous number of things that you take almost completely for granted. Probably the most basic of these is where the Kipharts started their work–water. Providing clean water makes all the difference. And when you add hygiene and health care to clean water, you completely transform people’s lives.

You are reminded on these trips that the food you slipped a credit card out of your wallet to purchase at the grocery store was produced only with great effort under very difficult situations. And you see that people in remote areas have enormous intelligence and abilities that you come to respect and admire. You learn how much you do not know or understand and how you do not have all, and may not have any, of the answers to problems others face, that you must listen, observe and trust others to solve their own problems in their own ways.

For all of these lessons, learned or re-learned, this was a great trip. These lessons are worth trying to retain and worth learning again. And again. Because they are not at all easy lessons to retain when you slip comfortably back into the world you left behind on this trip.

We were able to see and appreciate the tremendous growth and evolution of the Kipharts’ work since we started traveling with them five years ago. Much of this growth and evolution is due to the Olopades guidance and execution. It was wonderful to witness Peter Eduful’s son, Alex, take over the work that his father started.

On a more personal level, the trip allowed us to reconnect with friends we’ve made in Ghana over five years and in Nigeria, over two. And nobody who has read this blog can fail to appreciate what a pleasure it is to travel and laugh with, and learn from, our friends Dick and Susie, and Sola and Funmi.

If asked to pick the highlights of this trip, I would choose two at opposite ends of the experiential spectrum that bracketed our time in Nigeria and Ghana, the glamour of the fabulous engagement party in Lagos on our first full day of the trip, and our visits to the wonderful, but decidedly unglamorous, rural villages near Kumasi on our last full day. And there was some pretty terrific stuff in between.

Thanks to all of you who came along and have shared your comments. Now rest up a bit. We take off for Namibia in three months.




In the Villages

January 8

When the Kipharts began building wells in Ghana a dozen years ago, their principal contact was Peter Eduful, a Ghanaian who they had met through a mutual friend when Peter spent some time at the University of Chicago. Peter handled all logistics, contacts and finances for the Kipharts, eventually leaving his government job to work full time for the Kipharts. He was kind, deeply religious, competent and totally trustworthy. When Peter died suddenly, at 62, of a heart attack two years ago, it threw a complete monkey wrench into the Kipharts Ghanaian plans, and they began searching for a way to continue to operate. Feuds erupted between members of Peter’s family, some of whom he had employed, with the Kiphart’s knowledge, who thought they were “entitled” to assume Peter’s work. Not wanting to get in the middle of this feud and unsure that any family member had the skills to do the job, the Kipharts thought they would need to look elsewhere.

With the Olopades suggestion, we interviewed Peter’s son, Alex, a very bright young man with an architectural degree from Harvard. I was highly skeptical, not because he didn’t have the skills, but because I was uncertain he’d make the necessary commitment, with all the other things he has on his plate. Happily, I was dead wrong and, with Sola’s guidance and mentoring, Alex has produced several reports documenting the status of the 70 or so wells, conducting needs assessment interviews and making recommendations. We’ll be going with Alex and his partner in this effort, Frank, to visit a number of these wells today. (Last night at dinner we saw photos of Alex’s new twins.). This is a very happy and heartwarming ending to the story that began with Peter’s unfortunate premature death.

After breakfast at the Inn, we drive over two hours to Bonkwaso, the first stop of the exceedingly ambitious agenda Alex has set for us today. Traffic is heavy and the air quality terrible, aggravated by the dust because of the dry season. Once we get off the main road, travel is bone jarring and the dust from the dirt road so thick that we need to maintain a big distance from the other vehicles in our group. Several of us, including moi, have developed persistent coughs.

Rather than try to describe each place we stopped in detail, I’m going to give you the overall picture as best I can. The Kipharts, through the Olopades and the Center for Global Health at the University of Chicago, have embarked in the last couple years on trying to partner with villages, generally through their chiefs, and with governmental units (districts) so the the villages and government are sharing responsibility for water, sanitation and health rather than merely accepting gifts from the Kipharts. This is not an easy transition to effect, since the villages understandably liked getting unfettered gifts and districts were not averse to having their obligations performed for them.

The Kipharts decided to try to set up two model projects in the same district, Bonkwaso and Abasua, and those were the first two places we visited and the spots we spent most time at. In the first, the chief was resisting the new plan strongly, but Sola minced no words in letting him know definitively the way things were going to operate. My guess is that this chief is going to get it very quickly–he’s quite smart–and will operate well under the new rules. The second chief definitely gets it already. In both places, a representative of the district, with whom Alex had been in touch was present, and this was very helpful in conveying the message. After this meeting we had a terrific us scheduled meeting with the head of the district, who could not have been clearer in his understanding of, and support for, the new approach, saying, “Of course, if we do not do things for ourselves, how can we expect that you will do them for us?” These three meetings were enormously encouraging, and signaled a major change in operations achieved in a very short period of time, thanks largely to the Olopades and the excellent work that Alex Eduful has done.

We visited three more villages, involving substantial drives over bumpy, dusty roads. In each, we saw a well in operation, were greeted by chiefs and elders, had our, hands shaken repeatedly, told, “you are welcome, akwaaba,” exchanged speeches and saw adorable children.  We go through a ritual of being asked, “what is your mission” and replying as to why we have come. Though I’m not making this sound so appealing, it actually is very interesting and great fun. I took many photos, a sample of which I include below, including members of our team, chiefs, children ( for which I’m a complete sucker) and a final photo showing a typically religious name for a retail establishment.


Sola and Jonathan, from the water district

Abasua Chief

Dick and Chief

Okay, so I went a little overboard with the kids.

We drove back to the Inn, tired, dusty and badly in need of a shower. Half an hour later, we were off to a dinner attended by about twenty people, including all the people I’ve mentioned in this blog and five or six others who we’ve met on prior trips, including Dr. Annie and her doctor/son Robert, Alex Awesua, who has helped with the wells since Peter Eduful was involved, Dr. Ansong (of whom more tomorrow) and Phillip a terrific, young school headmaster. Everyone introduced himself and said a few words, which contributed to a very warm, family atmosphere in which everyone was genuinely glad to see one another.

Afterwards, we drove back to the Inn. The Kipharts, Olopades and Kanters spent half an hour or more debriefing the day and discussing future plans, as is our practice on these trips. Retired, with plans to awaken early for our last day.









Pineapples Are Not for Sissies

January 7

Breakfast at the hotel with Kipharts, Olopades and Joe and Daniel Kwarteng evolves into an interesting discussion of challenges for pineapple farm and potential solutions. A good deal of the discussion revolves around difficulties in finding a sufficient number of people willing to do the very hard, grueling work. This stems in part from the disfavor young people hold agriculture in. It lacks the pizzaz of other fields and does not hold the promise of big rewards quickly. The best worker on the farm is a deaf man who graduated from The Cape Coast School for the Deaf, an institution that Joe Kwarteng and his wife, Ida, and the Kipharts have supported and which we have visited several times. They plan to actively recruit more deaf graduates. It’s also clear from their experience that women are more willing workers than men. Most of the women have young children, many more than one, so child care is an issue.

We set out with the Kipharts and Olopades on the short drive to he pineapple farm, which is a private for-profit venture of Dick and Joe Kwarteng, the former Dean of Agriculture at Cape Coast University. Begun about three years ago, the farm consists of several plots totaling about 2000 acres, of which around 450 are currently planted. The vast majority of the land is planted in pineapples, but recently they have devoted smaller plots to trying mangos and limes.

It’s always fun to visit the farm and see the progress that has been made. The large pineapple fields are quite beautiful, spread across hills and lower lands. We drive around to observe and hear about the plantings and meet some of the workers.

Dick cutting pineapple

Joe Kwarteng

Daniel Kwarteng

John, Field Manager

The overwhelming sense I’m left with is that it’s a hell of a long way from these fields to Whole Foods and that agriculture is definitely not for sissies. We hear all about the pitfalls that have befallen them in a short time. Too much rain. Too little rain. Fungus. Marketing difficulties and buyers falsely falsely claiming fruit delivered was bad. Many acres of plantings ruined by flooding caused by heavy rains. Plants maturing too quickly, requiring that they be sold locally (rather than overseas) at a low price. Timing of getting things to ships. Delays because of traffic. Delays in the packing house, causing them to miss a ship and therefor lose the crop (they’ve concluded that they need to build their own packing house, which will cost $500,000). Very hard work, planting, weeding and picking; long hours in the hot sun.

After a couple hours, we set off on the long drive (4 hours plus) to Kumasi, stopping for lunch at a very nice hotel/restaurant overlooking the sea, fanned continually by cool breezes. We complete the drive and arrive at The Four Villages Inn, our home in Kumasi, where Carol and I stay in the same room each time we come. We’re greeted by Frank, the son of the owners, Chris and Chastity, to whom we all express condolences at the very unexpected death of Chris in surgery in Canada less than a month ago. In less than half an hour, we’re settled into our rooms and are off to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant, with the Kwartengs and their two sons, Alex Eduful and several others. We’ll be spending tomorrow with Alex and his right hand man, Frank, visiting wells, so I’ll save the Eduful story for then.





Cocoa, Traffic and Off to Ghana

January 6

Down for breakfast in the hotel.

Email from Sola. Once again, the best laid plans…so, unfortunately we will be unable to visit the home of a woman who is participating in the study Sola told us about last evening. So, I’ll tell you about it anyway, because it’s so interesting.

Sola is a pulmonologist who has a particular interest in indoor pollution, which he says kills over 4 million people annually, primarily women and young children, who suffer the effects of mothers cooking indoors without ventilation. He is conducting a fascinating study in Nigeria, designed to show the impact of indoor pollution on mothers and infants. He has enlisted 300 pregnant women, one-third of them are using new stoves he has provided that burn ethanol, a clean fuel. The others are equally divided between women cooking with wood and with kerosene, both of which are dirty fuels. Along with over twenty researchers he is supervising, they are conducting detailed tests at various stages of pregnancy on the fetus and the mother, and will continue with a longitudinal study that traces the subjects for five years after birth. The study is carefully designed to control for differences in nutrition, and other factors that could skew the results. Sola is justifiably excited about the study and the enormous impact it could have on saving lives.

The stoves are very inexpensive. The trick is to convince people to use them, and to assure that there’s a supply of ethanol. Sola, with his typical ingenuity, has convinced Shell Oil to donate the ethanol for his study and gotten Ibadan University to allow him to put a tank on their land. We’re sorry not to be able to see the stoves in action, but will look forward to hearing the results after the 2-year study is completed this August.

We meet the participants in an early morning meeting that Funmi is holding at our hotel, including the head of pharmacology at the University, a woman named Peace who we met a year and a half ago. Peace is collaborating with Purdue University on a project relating to assuring quality in African medicines. She is looking to build a lab, and the Kipharts will put her in touch with a foundation in Spain, who through the Kipharts, has constructed a lab at the clinic in Kumasi, Ghana that the Kipharts support. We’ve visited that maternal care clinic on all of our four trips to Ghana, and we’ll see it again in a few days. Ain’t globalization somethin’?

Not to air our dirty laundry, but we got into some rather spirited discussion with Funmi about the use/waste of our time on this trip. She apologized, but explained the reasons why not everything turns out as planned and we needed to be more patient. The air has been cleared, I think, but the incident shows that cultural differences surface, even among good friends. I later joked that I was going to entitle this post, “Fighting with Funmi.” She laughed, but it was clear that she would not have thought that very funny.

We set off with our security guard and Sammy, our protocol officer.

En route with Funmi we are able to discuss a range of topics, ask her about things that may have been unclear to us, and explore new topics. The slight bow/bend of the knee that we see frequently is a sign of respect from a younger person to an older person (regardless of gender; “age trumps gender,” Funmi says, and we applaud). The money passed out liberally at parties is part of the compensation for servers and performers (like tips) and a way of defraying the costs of the affair, when given to hosts. Funmi sees a sign of hope in the troubled Northeast. The newly elected emir was a former treasury secretary and an outspoken critic of corruption. In fact, he did a terrific TED talk. Anyone interested can email me and I’ll find it for you. He is effectively the king of Cano, the second largest city in Nigeria. A sign of the incredible connectedness of the Olopades is that recently they met the emir at a big birthday party, because he was and old school friend of Ayo’s (the groom) father.

We head to CRIN, Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, a government-funded institute that actually deals not only with cocoa, but also coffee, kola, cashew nuts, and tea. They do extensive research on all of these crops, seeking ways to improve them. The Kipharts have indicated some interest in possibly investing in cocoa and the Olopades, when they came in August (on the trip that we and the Kipharts were to have joined them on) did quite a bit to explore potential cocoa investment possibilities, particularly in Ekiti State, which we had visited in August, 2013.

The meeting with four CRIN scientists lasted about an hour during which they explained their operations and answered questions. Dick pretty clearly was not impressed with them as a possible investment partner. We then went out to the nursery to see the cocoa plants and the grafting process which has created hybrids that greatly out perform other varieties. Seeing is a good deal more fun than listening, especially when the difficulties of deciphering accents are compounded by the noise of construction outside.

We headed out on the long, bumpy and dusty ride to the Lagos airport. For quite some time, there is heavy traffic, causing vehicles to form not one, but two, lines on the shoulder of the road jockeying for position both with other shoulder riders and with traffic on the main road, which vehicles enter and leave whenever there’s a perceived gain of a couple car lengths in doing so. The scenery on the side of the road is not uninteresting, composed of commercial areas, large gatherings of trucks and animals. Vendors risk their lives wandering in the midst of passing traffic, trying to sell drinks, food, gum and all manner of other things.

We reach the airport a bit over an hour before scheduled flight time and find the international terminal very uncrowded, as most international flights leave late in the evening. More to the point, the Olopades rule the Lagos airport, getting us quickly through baggage inspection, getting the check-in people to allow us extra bags without cost, convincing an inspector to allow Susie to take on a glass container that they had nixed, getting an airport employee to inform us in a lounge we occupy when the flight is ready and arranging for us to skirt the line at the gate. We have drinks and a snack in a new public lounge, then board the flight, which is about an hour and a half late.

The flight to Accra, the capital of a Ghana is less than an hour. We’re met at the airport by Daniel Kwarteng, the son of Joe (and Ida) Kwarteng, Dicks partner in the pineapple farm we will visit tomorrow. We’re greeted very warmly by Daniel, who we’ve met several times before. Going to Ghana is very much like coming home to us now.

We ride with Susie in a very comfortable car, driven by a young man named Sammy. Daniel drives Dick and the Olopades in a separate vehicle. We’ve decided to drive a couple hours tonight in order to be able to get an early start at the pineapple farm tomorrow and to be closer to Kumasi. En route, we pass a huge brand new shopping mall that opened a couple of months ago. I’m afraid to ask what stores populate it. At the same time, we see hundreds of young people walking the center line on the highway at night trying to hawk their wares, clearly at great risk to their lives.

Our two-hour drive takes three hours. The hotel appears perfectly fine, except that the wifi they have doesn’t work, so I won’t be able to post this blog or check emails. I was intending to have just a beer for dinner, but the buffet dinner which includes rice, vegetables in a nice sauce and prawns is good enough to go back for more. Joe Kwarteng is there with 8 or 10 of the people who work on the pineapple farm. The latter give an update on what’s going on there, but because of poor acoustics, generally bad hearing and Ghanaian accents, which differ from the Nigerian accents we’ve acclimated some to, I only get about half of it. Up to bed by 11.


Academic Interlude

January 5

Water pressure in the house makes showering impossible, so we’re planning to move to a hotel this evening. I probably could have survived without showers, but I draw the line at no wifi. I mean, c’mon. Susie says, “we could have done with this, if we had to, but, if you don’t have to…..” I told Susie that that pretty-much summed up my philosophy of life. I’ve never been one to skirt the moving walkways at airports.

We have breakfast at the house, eggs with a bit of a kick to them, fresh orange juice, toast and sausage, with Nescafé. We’re met at the house by the deputy vice chancellor of the university, EmilOlorun Aiyelari, who we are told we can call Ambrose (we Americans are so bad at making the effort to learn and pronounce foreign names), and taken over to the school, where we meet with 8 professors from all facets of the agriculture school– including forestry, agronomy, fisheries, wildlife, plant breeding and crop production, ecotourism, entomology–and see the work of a woman who is doing new research on cocoa plants. The Kipharts are reasonably knowledgable on some aspects of what we discuss. For Carol and me it is almost entirely a learning process (though each time we are exposed to it, we absorb a bit more). Those we meet with are obviously very experienced and expert in the areas we discuss. Their various different accents require close attention in order to absorb what is said, but the three hours we spend is quite interesting and rewarding. One common theme in all the agricultural areas is that for any work they do to be effective it needs to be built from the bottom up, paying close attention to what the farmer wants and is willing to do.

We returned to the house for a very good lunch, and assembled our luggage for transfer to the hotel.  Wasted quite a bit of time, first driving to the University, then to the medical school  to meet Funmi and finally back to the Unversity for a meeting with the Vice Chancellor, Isaac Adewole, who we had met a year ago August.  Isaac is a powerhouse in his last year as Vice Chancellor and talked about what had and had not been accomplished under his tenure, and about an exciting project in solar energy that they plan to do with the government of Germany.  Isaac has a clear vision for the university and is very bullish on both the University and Nigeria.  He predicts that all of the troubles we read about in the Northeast with Boko Haram will die out within two years.  He also thinks that the huge drops in oil prices will ultimately benefit Nigeria by forcing it to diversify and look to agriculture as one of its primary assets.

We drive to and check into the very nice, new Owu Crown Hotel, where the protocol officer who has accompanied us all along (“Samuel,” though that’s nothing close to his real name) negotiates a 30% discount because of our affiliation with the University, and we are given a suite.  We barely have time to wash up, before we need to set out for dinner, hosted for us and about 25 university professors outside at the home of the Vice Chancellor.  Driving there I realize that I’ve become so used to the African urban landscape that I barely notice what has fascinated me on prior trips and what I know first-time visitors would gawk at.  I’ve included a few not very good photos, taken as we whizzed through in our van.


En route to the dinner, Sola tells us details of a fascinating study on indoor pollution that he is in the middle of. I’m going to hold the details until tomorrow, because it will fit better with what we are doing then. The dinner is quite pleasant, though I’d have enjoyed it even more if I had a richer appreciation for the nuances of poultry nutrition, the specialty of the Dean of the Agriculture School, who was seated next to me. We are showered with many gifts by the Vice Chancellor. Clearly, the VC feels that a relationship with the Kipharts is worth the very substantial amount of attention, time and effort that he and his faculty members have spent with us on our two trips. Another reason is undoubtedly the esteem in which two distinguished alumni of the University, Sola and Funmi, are held. Funmi does not attend the dinner, spending the evening instead with her 94-year old mother.

We drive back to the hotel, past night markets lit by kerosene lamps, and retire early.



Birthday in Ibadan

January 4

Okay, I gotta start out with a shout-out to somebody who is not in Nigeria, but who is responsible for bringing Nigeria to you. The other day, I’d finished the post about the wedding/engagement, loaded pictures and the damn blog app crashed. Now how many of you think that made me happy? Right.

I think I made up several new Yoruban cuss words, before writing to Glenn Crocker, “my web guy,” who over the years has designed and modified my website, helped me with blog issues and, in short, done whatever I’ve needed. I’ll spare you all the details, but it was actually Glenn who posted the wedding/engagement post and, in half a dozen or more emails, guided me to a point where I can once again make posts. So, if you need any help with anything that smacks remotely of web-type stuff, get in touch with Glenn, and tell him that you discovered him in Nigeria.,

This may seem like a complete diversion from the description of the trip, but, actually, I don’t think it is. The blog has become for me a way of focusing on the events of the day and reflecting on them. In this sense, blogging enhances and becomes part of the trip. It also is a way of preserving those memories that is easier to access than the written journals I used to keep, and a good deal more visual. Finally, sharing our trip with friends and family who are interested also enriches and extends our travel experience and allows us to connect around those experiences with folks we care about.

Okay, now where the hell were we?

Up rather early to pack and have breakfast with the Kipharts. Then it was “get me to the church on time,” with Dick, Susie, Funmi and Sola to give thanksgiving for Feyi’s engagement. We were originally going to go to a larger, fancier church, which would have required the ladies to don their engagement headgear again, but since we have to get out of Dodge quickly (though Lagos, at over 18 million people, is quite a bit larger than Dodge), Funmi opted for a more modest church, which we plan to attend, dressed for the later events of the day (of which, more to come).

Well, actually, it turned out that our church was in the lobby of the Blowfish Hotel. We were mistakenly taken to the main cathedral, where we saw people dressed for church in finery equivalent to what we saw at the engagement. The young woman who accompanied us said everyone dressed up for Jesus, but she suspected that some dressed up for each other. We were later told by Funmi that the first Sunday of the year was a day on which people dressed in their absolute finest, to give thanks for having survived the year.  As people leave the church, some pass out money (“tips”) to people standing outside.  A fight nearly breaks out between young men shouting at one another, unhappy about the division of the spoils.  Doling out money in this way appears to be a regular part of Nigerian celebrations, and occurred at the engagement party and later today at the birthday party.  In any case, this cathedral was not where Funmi and Sola were going, so we headed back to the hotel to wait for Them. At least, back at the hotel, we got to see Feyi and Ayo, dressed for the service they were going to at the main cathedral. Oh, well, the best laid plans….

This morning, actually the entire few days we’ve been here, have been so different from the hectic pace we usually keep with the Kipharts and Olopades. Today will be another relatively slow-paced day, as we travel to Ibadan for the 70th birthday bash for Funmi’s brother, Abiodun Falusi, a professor of agricultural economics at Ibadan University. The 2-hour drive to Ibadan, a city of some 4 million people, is along a highway that is pretty decent, though in need of some repair. Driving is fast, weaving in and out, trucks are passed on the right or left. In shot, it’s smart to have strong religious convictions if you drive on these roads. We pass market areas and roadside retail spots, more urban than those we’ve typically seen in Ghana.

We travel with the Kipharts in a van with a driver, security guard and a representative from the university. The Olopades travel in a separate vehicle and trail us by probably close to an hour. We arrive at the university around 2PM, and are ushered into a very large auditorium, where probably 300-400 people dressed every bit as fancy as at the engagement party are seated at round tables of eight. Speeches are underway and, at a break, we are introduced from our table at the front of the hall.

This is a very major tribute to Funmi’s brother. A book has been prepared in his honor, with chapters written by many professors, for sale to those assembled. Guests are given bags with gifts of specially done diary books, notebooks, pens, all in Abiodun’s honor and with his name on it. Another book of his life history, with pictures and tributes is passed out.

Speeches continue for a very, very long time by professors, vice chancellors, friends and family. Abiodun’s family seems to rival the Olopades in terms of achievement. His wife is a doctor and expert on sickle cell anemia, at least two of his children are doctors, as well. Like the Olopades, they are a very handsome family.

While the affair goes on for a very, very long time (we’re there for over three hours), it’s warm and impressive. The strength of family and friendship bonds is palpable, the mood is festive. It’s nice to see a person’s life and work appreciated so fully at a time when he can enjoy the celebration, rather than at a funeral service, as frequently happens in the US.  A large portrait of Abiodun is presented, and there is much thanks to and praise for Jesus. While the religiosity is over the top from my standpoint, it does lend a certain humility to the proceedings through recognition that a person’s accomplishments are not solely his own. There is talk of another party for Abiodun’s 80th, but I’m pretty sure I’m busy that day. Singing and dancing, with a live band, follow. These Nigerians know how to party. And we and the Kipharts are greeted very warmly by many people who we met on our trip to Nigeria last year, including Funmi’s 94-year old mother.

Here are some photos from the birthday bash:

Young birthday celebrant with his Grandma

Funmi’s mom

Abiodun and Susie

Abiodun’s wife with Carol and Susie

As soon as the final prayer is offered and dancing begins, we say our goodbyes to the honoree and his wife, and arrange to meet the Olopades later. We are driven to a home on the Ibadan University campus, where we’ll stay for the next two nights. Our accommodations are fine, though far from posh. We spend some time reading, blogging, etc and around 7, are called to the dining room for a simple dinner. After dinner, Funmi comes over and we discuss the engagement and birthday parties, and the fact that we can’t get wifi in the house. Bummer, no blog post tonight. Retire very early, in need of a good night’s sleep





The Day After

January 3

Up for breakfast with the Kipharts at the hotel. Some of the young people at the wedding, including Ayo, the groom, Dayo, the bride’s sister, and Tobi, the bride’s brother, come by to visit. They partied until 3 or 4 AM, but look no worse the wear for it. Ah, youth.

So, maybe this is a good time to tell you a bit about the Olopade children. Feyi, the bride, is the eldest. A graduate of Penn and Harvard Business School, she an entrepeneur, working on developing a shareable cancer data base. Dayo has just graduated with a joint degree from Yale Law School and it’s School of Management (the business school) and will take the NY bar next month. She took time off from Yale to write a fascinating book, called Africa:The Bright Continent, which I highly recommend. The “baby”, Tobi, who is 6’3″, was completing his applications to business schools–Stanford, Harvard and Wharton–by the poolside, and needed to rush back to his job at Credit Suisse in New York. He speaks fluent Chinese. A bit intimidating, eh?

We and Susie and Dick had a driver (and an escort and a guard) who drove us into Lagos, through the large, bustling market. Were it not so hot (99F), we might have wandered on foot, but, as it is, we were content to drive through in air conditioned comfort. Here are a few photos taken from the van:


We next drove to the National Museum, a small, rather poorly lit and air conditioned building. It was, however, very well organized, with six rooms stretching from birth through reincarnation. The guide was well-versed on the artifacts and gave us a very interesting tour in just under an hour, explaining the traditions and beliefs behind the artifacts and costumes. Very well worth the stop.

We returned to the Blow Fish Hotel, a comfortable small hotel that is dominated by young wedding guests, with whom we chat freely. We go out by the pool to eat a quite delicious buffet lunch in the shade. After lunch, we rest in the room, then go back down by the pool for more conversation with bright young wedding guests from Africa and the US.

We and the Kipharts pass in the planned dinner, which probably won’t get going until at least 9PM, and instead walk to a modest African restaurant for an acceptable, but unexceptional, dinner. We return to the hotel where, if I’m successful in solving the problems I’ve been having with the blog, you’ll be able to read this post.

A Wedding ( Technically, an Engagement) to Remember

I am having trouble with the blog app, so I am trying to publish what is a draft of this post and hope to modify/finish this afterwards.  If there’s a delay in future blogs, that is why.  There may not be any photos.

January 2

Start the wedding day with buffet breakfast in hotel with Kipharts and Chase, delightful former roommate of Ayo (the groom at U of AZ) and now a high school history teacher in Seattle. Up to the room to dress for the wedding. This is a major project, which takes half an hour with a dresser to complete (for the women; guys do it all by themselves). My best guess, from the design of the male costume, is that Nigerian males do not pee. Here are a few photos from Carol’s dressing:





Best way to give you an overall view of the wedding ceremony is through this script of the proceedings:


​ 11.00am – 12.00pm:​ Arrival of bride’s family
The bride’s family is expected to be seated, waiting for the arrival of the groom’s family.
The Alaga ijoko is also expected to have arrived.

12.00pm – 12.10pm: Entrance of Groom’s family with choruses
The Groom’s family enters the hall with singing and dancing to the glory of God.

12.10pm – 12.15pm: Opening Hymn
After the Groom’s family has settled in, the Alaga ijoko would ask everyone to arise to sing the Opening Hymn.

12.15pm – 12.20pm: Opening Prayers
The opening prayers will be said by a representative of the bride’s family.

12.20pm – 12.35pm: Purpose of Gathering​​​​
The formal introduction of the groom’s family will be done by the Alaga Iduro stating where they are from and the purpose of their visit.​

12.35pm – 12.50pm​: Ushering in of the groom and his friends
The groom and his friends make an entrance amidst drumming and singing. He goes straight to the bride’s family to prostrate with his friends. While he prostrates, every member of the family is asked to stretch forth their hands and pray for him. He gets up and takes a photograph with the bride’s parents and goes ahead to do the same with his parents. He would then be ushered to his seat on the stage by his friends and takes a group photograph with them. ​​

12.50pm – 1.10pm​: Ushering in of the bride and her friends
The bride comes in dancing with her friends amidst fanfare. She goes to her parents, gets on her knees to appreciate them and they in turn pray for her. Still on her knees, every member of the family is asked to stretch forth their hands to pray for her. She then sits in between them to take a photograph. She goes ahead to do same with the groom’s parents; and they also in turn pray for her and welcome her into the family. She then goes to kneel before the groom and place his cap on his head and sits by him on the stage.

1.10pm – 1.35pm: Presentation of Proposal and Acceptance
After both letters have been exchanged, a younger sister of the bride goes ahead to read the letter presented by the groom’s family. The family of the bride then accepts the proposal letter.

1.35pm – 1.50pm: Introduction
A formal introduction is conducted. Both families are introduced and properly recognised.

1.50pm – 2.05pm: Engagement
The bride is asked to go to the gift arena and pick whatever she so desires. She picks a bible and shows everyone what has been picked. The groom goes ahead to present the engagement ring to the bride. Afterwards, the cake is cut and the first official meal of the couple is served.

2.05pm – 2.10pm: Special Prayer for the Couple
The couple kneel for their blessings. A special prayer is said by an elderly member of the family. After this, family, friends and well wishers are told to stretch forth their hands and say a word of prayer for the couple.

​ 2.10pm – 2.15pm: Closing Hymn

​ 2.15pm-2.20pm: Closing Prayers

While this gives you and idea of the order and scope, it does not begin to describe the pageantry and feast of sights and sounds. Unlike weddings we’ve experienced, this is decidedly a union, not simply between the bride and groom, but between the families. There is much drumming, processions of groomsmen, bridesmaids and finally the groom, and then the bride, prostration in front of the parents of the bride and groom, money doled out freely and openly to musicians, mothers of the bride and others. Here is perhaps a too-heavy dose of photos, featuring us, the Kipharts, Sola and Funmi, and the bride and groom (but you can flip through them quickly):

















The costumes/dress of the guests and wedding party is fabulous–fine, colorful and rather spectacular.
The minute by minute schedule above is a bit misleading.  For example, we were scheduled to leave for the wedding site, a convention hall rented for the occasion, promptly at 10 AM, fully dressed.  Well, the dresser who as to help Carol dress and make her up arrived in our room at about 11:35.  Needless to say, the bride’s party, of which we were a part, did not arrive between 11-12, more like 1:30.  Probably nobody but us expected much different.
Once the festivities began, they proceeded pretty-much as planned, moved along expertly by a woman hired for the occasion as an MC.  It is an elaborate performance, highly religious, with Jesus thanked profusely throughout for making everything possible.  We are seated at the front, with family and (other) close friends.  I’ve been freed by Sola and Funmi to push myself forward as I choose to take photos (“there is no protocol” they tell me.
Once the pageant begins, the food, drink and partying begins.  A life band plays continuously (without break). For the two and a half hours we are there.  It’s a totally joyous and wonderful affair, exceeding our extremely high expectations.
The party continues after we leave, though it probably not last much longer.  Except that there is an “after party” for Feyi and Ayo’s friends in a separate facility at the center–and Jesus only knows how late that one will run. We and the Kipharts return to our hotel to relax and work on the blog (which just crashed, so you may or may not ever read this).

Over the Atlantic on New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2014-January 1, 2015

We are winging our way over the Atlantic, en route to Nigeria and Ghana. Our friends, the Kipharts, are with us, but in the front end of the plane. Our friends, the Olopades, are in Nigeria already and will meet us when we arrive. This is our fifth trip to Ghana with the Kipharts (our third with the Olopades joining us) and the second trip of the six of us together to Nigeria.

We were to have made this trip in late August – early September, but the Kiphart’s and we canceled because of the Ebola threat. The Olopades went. Being doctors, they had a role to play in Nigeria. In addition to our usual visits to remote rural areas, meetings with government and university officials and trips to medical facilities, we have a special reason for going to Nigeria right now. One of the Olopades’ daughters, Feyi, is being married tomorrow in Lagos, and we all will celebrate (along with about 400 invited guests and probably as many crashes). We are all very excited. The six of us will be dressed in our Nigerian wedding costumes, for which we were measured a couple of months ago in Chicago, by a Nigerian seamstress. How neat is that?

We’ll be well looked-after. Two days ago, we got an email from the bride with some travel tips. I thought you’d find it amusing, so I’m copying about half of it below:

Dear All,

Some of you have traveled to Nigeria. Others haven’t. Regardless – I wanted to share a few personal tips and tricks to help you better understand the epic journey you will all be embarking on, and provide you with a little tarmac humor :)

Step 1: Nigerians are very status conscious, and dress up for international travel. While it probably makes more sense to travel in sweatpants and comfy Uggs, this would be bewildering to most Nigerians. Make sure to bring a nice designer tote and something with a little bling. The Nigerian jewelry dress code consists of earrings, necklace and a watch. At a minimum. Comfy flats are acceptable if they have a little bling on them :)

Step 2: don’t bring too much hand luggage. Nigerians are notorious for bringing too much stuff back with them, so they are extra strict and will take your bags with you. No matter how tempted you are to be the last person to board, do not let this happen. Once the overhead space is full you are screwed. In the event that you do have to give up your carry on, make sure to carry a spare lock.

Step 3: have respect for elders. Older Nigerian people are revered and may have very strange expectations of you. The same for pregnant women or women with small children. They may ask you to do any of the following: carry their handbag, fetch things from the overhead bin, change the channel on the tv, unzip their coat, etc. Do not be alarmed. Comply, smile, and move on. The only thing I’d put my foot down for is when someone asks you for your aisle seat when they clearly have a middle one.

I’m hoping that older, non-Nigerians are revered, too. One can never get too much reverence.

For those of you who can use a little brush-up on the map of Nigeria, here it is:


The awful things that are going on with the Boko Haram kidnappings and killings are in the far north of the country, a long way from where we’ll be. Ghana is not shown on this map, but it’s west of Benin.

To give you the big picture on Nigeria, we were struck by how it bestrides sub-Saharan Africa as a kind of colossus. The population of Lagos alone is two-thirds the population of the entire country of Ghana. In a sense, Nigeria is three countries, the Ibo-dominated, oil rich Southeast (which seceded as Biafra in the 1960s, resulting in a 30-month civil war that killed more than a million), the Yoruba West of the Country that includes Lagos, the country’s engine, and the Hausa North, which is largely Muslim, agrarian and military. These countries have different languages and cultures. There were originally twelve states in the three regions, but those twelve have now morphed into thirty-six, each with a government, and each (except Lagos) largely dependent on an oil-rich federal government for funds. Small wonder, then, that corruption is a big problem.

Funmi and Sola Olopade are both Yorubas, and proud of it. Funmi’s father was an Anglican minister and Sola’s a businessman. Both were highly educated in the best and most competitive schools in Nigeria. The Olopades are both doctors, and run the Global Health Initiative at the University of Chicago. If you want to know something about Funmi, I encourage you to take a look at Sola is equally accomplished, but does not have as good a press agent as Funmi.

The Olopades are both dual citizens. It’s important for us to keep in mind that in dealing with Funmi and Sola, we are talking to the upper strata of Nigerian society and not to think that they are representative of the population as a whole. I’ll fill in more about the Olopades as we go though Nigeria together.

Prior to our last trip to Nigeria, I wrote a fair amount about Nigeria, which you can find in my earlier blog, if you are interested. For those of you who are too lazy or not interested enough to look back (and I mean “lazy” and “not interested” in their non-pejorative sense) or want to focus on what’s key, I’ll repeat Sola’s answers to three questions I put to him before our last trip.

What five things should readers of the blog understand about Nigeria?

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic country and a relatively young democracy despite getting independence in 1960

Nigeria is a major oil producer and probably provides 25% of US oil import of light crude

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with an estimate of 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 black persons in the world being a Nigerian

Nigerians value education and are the most educated in terms of masters level degrees earned by all immigrants in the USA

Moslems and Christians are about 50/50 in terms of numbers with the north being predominantly Moslems and the southwest being a mixture

2. What are Nigeria’s greatest strengths/assets?

The people, not only in terms of numbers but in terms of generosity, especially the Yorubas, who are sometimes captioned as “as hospitable as the Yorubas”

Natural resources beyond oil, which is what most people know


Confident and very assertive educated folks

Large families that provide safety net for those going through life’s challenges

3. What are Nigeria’s greatest problems/challenges?


Sole dependence on oil

Unreliable power (electrical) supply

Poor leadership

So, it just turned midnight. Well, actually, it’s a bit of a metaphysical question when midnight is/was. It’s midnight Houston time, but we’ve been flying east for a few hours, so it must actually been later than that. Why Houston time? We flew to Houston, where we got a non-stop to Lagos. Why are there non-stops from Houston to Lagos? Oil.

Thus far the trip has been a breeze. There seemed to be more check-in people than passengers in the premier check-in lines at O’Hare and, since we’re TSA approved, we flew through security. We spent a couple hours visiting with the Kipharts in the United Club in Chicago and at least as long with them in the Club in Houston. Carol and I are flying Economy Plus, which is good enough. I’ve been reading AMERICANAH by
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is excellent, and the perfect book to be reading en route from the U.S. to Nigeria to attend the wedding of a Nigerian-American. The long flight to Lagos (over 11 hours) will allow me to make a heavy dent into the book.

Flight over on United’s quiet new Dreamliner arrived ah hour early. Customs was smooth, but rather long wait for luggage. We were met at the airport by Sola and two drivers and escorted to the Blowfish Hotel on very upscale Victoria Island. Light traffic on New Year’s Day holiday. Checked into hotel and our wedding costumes were folded on the bed.


Walked half a block to what turned out to be a terrific Japanese restaurant. Funmi and Sola walked us over, but did not stay. The Kipharts and we had dinner with Yemi, who was an advisor to Funmi in college and a great character.


She lives in England, where she used to work in HR for a large foundation that served people with disabilities. In more recent years, she’s moved to Essex, where she volunteers and conducts focus groups for people with cancer and their families. She returns to Nigeria four times a year to fulfill her responsibilities as chief of a group of some 3000. She also travels to Kuwait to visit her son, who is in finance there and his wife and daughter. Yemi was a most entertaining dinner companion.

We returned to the hotel, where we will retire very early in the hopes of being wide awake for tomorrow’s big wedding day.

Jaguars in strange places and reflections on Brazil

May 7-8

Breakfast and last chance to photograph the toucans and macaws at the lodge.





We set out for the long drive to the Cuiaba airport at 7:30. Eduardo treats the drive as just another birding outing, so we stop frequently to view and photograph birds, and even some small marmoset monkeys that Eduardo has heard, then spotted as he drives down the muddy and slippery “highway.”

The heavy rains have done no favors to the condition of the road, and Eduardo sometimes makes some bridge repairs before crossing, but the scenery remains pleasing.



Eduardo’s facility in spotting and identifying birds and other animals brings to mind the skills that our guides in Africa impressed us with many years ago. In both cases, it’s a familiarity borne of growing up and living with the animals, not from book learning. Eduardo says that the human population of the Pantanal (the jungle, he calls it, is 200 males). No crops are grown because the soil is too sandy, and work consists of raising cattle, being a cowboy –raising horses for tending the cows–fishing or ecotourism.






Down the road a piece, Carol and I are traded for a young British woman. Eduardo had told us that he was going to have a new guest arriving, so he was going to switch us over to another guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to the airport. Junior is younger than Eduardo, speaks English fine, knows about birds and drives a far more comfortable and air conditioned car. So, though we’d have preferred Eduardo for the full trip, overall it’s not a bad trade. Junior tells us that people are mixed as to their views of the World Cup. Poor people would have liked the money spent on schools, roads and health. The rich, who are the only ones who will be able to afford tickets to go to the World Cup, will just get richer. Junior makes a few bird sighting stops and we arrive at the airport a bit more than an hour before flight time. We breeze through check-in and security, and board our 2 1/4 hour flight to San Paolo.



Now for some random thoughts on the trip, on Brazil and, probably inevitably, on life, too. For starters, as always, I’m grateful for the incredible privilege of being able to travel like this. It’s the biggest luxury that Carol and I indulge in, and I can’t think of one I’d enjoy more. Once again, it’s terrific to be able to do it, just the two of us, not subject to anybody else’s whims or schedule. Traveling in a group can have some advantages, but, for us, traveling alone or with only a few friends wins, hands down.

A corollary of the amazing trips we’ve taken over the years is that it’s extremely difficult for any new venture to join the upper echelons of our experiences. And Brazil does not make it to that level. If friends asked, we’d certainly put other destinations higher on the list. Knowing what I now know, I might well have opted for another destination, or, at least, changed the make-up of the trip. But, all of that said, I’m not sorry we went.

The trip had its moments, actually quite a few of them. In fact, it got progressively better as we moved along.

Salvador was not the cultural experience we had expected, and that was disappointing. But the old city certainly had its charm, and spending time with Rodrigo and Fernanda was good fun. The social project relating to treatment of women in the favela was worthwhile and interesting. We had one quite outstanding dinner, our guide was engaging and the hotel quite fine. We enjoyed the performance of the Ballet Folklorico and visiting churches celebrating St. Benedict was an interesting experience, too. Our time there was definitely colored by Carol’s chain having been ripped off of her.

Rio is an absolutely stunning city. Full stop. The views of the city from various vantage points were spectacular. The tour of the favela with Rodrigo was excellent and gave us some appreciation for life in the favela. Luiz did a nice job of showing us around, including two out-of-the-ordinary things, visits to the museum of naïve art and to the synagogue. The modern dance performance at the opera house by the Israeli dance company, Batsheva, was truly outstanding. Of course, that just happened to be in Rio; it could as well have been anyplace in the world. Visiting two samba clubs with Rodrigo was fun, but, sadly, I’m feeling that my samba heyday may well have passed me by. Our dinners with Mike Freed’s friends, Rosa and Paul, and with our friend, Andrew, were both terrific, and definitely highlights of Rio. We loved the Maria Ruisa Hotel/ guest house we stayed at in Maria Teresa and the funky, Bohemian atmosphere of the area. Again, our discomfort with safety, stemming from somebody trying to rob our guide in daylight in downtown Rio, did not enhance our stay in Rio. (But, as I said earlier in the blog, even those unpleasant and negative experiences educate us as to the way many less fortunate than us live their lives.)

The highlight of our trip was clearly the time we spent in the Pantanal, especially the last three days with Eduardo. The birding was both fabulous and exciting. Makes me think that if I were doing the trip over, I would substitute a few days on the Amazon for Salvador. I might also consider Iguazu Falls, if I had time, but I think the Amazon would take precedence.

Here’s something curious. I talked about the discomfort/lack of safety we felt in Salvador and Rio. And yet, we thought nothing of going off into the Pantanal alone with a complete stranger, a 44-year old guy we don’t know from Adam, and trusting him to drive us around on muddy roads over wooden bridges, run the motorboat and guide us through areas that contain dangerous animals. Go figure.

So, what made the Pantanal so great? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nature is the nuts, Man. And I think it may especially be the nuts for city dwellers like us who seem (and are) so far removed from nature most of the time. Sorry if this sounds corny, but there’s something, well, primal about returning to nature. And if a great travel experience gets you away from what you do on a daily basis, for us, nature qualifies. (Makes ya’ think that maybe introducing a more regular dose of nature into our lives might not be such a bad idea.)

The three animal/birding experiences we’ve had have been markedly different. (I’m going to spare you including our search for tigers in India or any of my many scuba diving experiences.). The Galapagos, our first, was unique in that what we saw there is unspoiled and cannot be seen anyplace else on earth. Visiting everyplace by boat was also unique. Africa was, well, Africa. Perhaps there’s a mystique that enhances the experience, but the mystique is powerful enough that it seems real (if that’s not a complete contradiction in terms). Seeing the range of animals that we saw on our three trips there and roaming across the land with them is experiencing the wild in a way unlike anything else we’ve done. The Pantanal is certainly the best birding we’ve done, by far. Carol identified 81 species in our five days there. Unlike in Africa, though, you don’t roam the land in a jeep, but travel down the Transpantaneira “highway,” or walk through woods in search of birds. We saw very little animal life in the Pantanal, and certainly nothing that compared remotely to Africa.

Another major difference between Africa and the Pantanal was the accommodations, which were often spectacular in Africa and very basic in the Pantanal. I’ll admit to liking the luxury of Africa, the creature comforts. And I’m guessing that I’m not going to value creature comforts less as I age. To me, amazing accommodations enhance, add an element to, the travel experience. Given the option, I’ll take luxury. At the same time, the basic accommodations in the Pantanal did not ruin the trip, or come close to doing so, though nobody would mistake them for a Four Seasons.

Here are a fifteen differences between a Four Seasons/our Pantanal accommodations:

24 hours of electricity a day/12 hours of electricity a day
2. Used toilet paper flushed down the toilet/used toilet paper placed in a little plastic waste can
3. Brush your teeth with tap water/brush your teeth with a bottle of water
4. Running hot water in the sink/no running hot water in the sink
5. Choice of food/no choice of food
6. Perpetual hot water in shower/periodic hot water in shower
7. Shower curtain/no shower curtain
8. No bats in the room/average of one bat in the room per day
9. Amenities kit/teeny bar of soap
10. Shuttle bus from the airport to hotel/truck from airport to hotel
11. Choice of wake-up time/told truck leaves with you in it at 4:30 AM
12. Closet with hangers/no closet, no hangers
13. Laundry sent out, done magically/laundry sent out, done by woman with pail outside
14. Phone in room/no phone in hotel
15. Doorman/no doorman

I’ve thought some about the experience of going bird or animal watching, and why that seems so special. First, there’s the excitement of the unexpected. When you go out looking for birds or animals, you don’t know what, if anything, you’re going to find. And it’s even okay if you don’t find what your looking for. Finding jaguar tracks last night and the anticipation that that created, was almost as good as finding a jaguar would have been. Okay, so that’s a direct lie. But there’s an element of truth to it.

In fact, the opposite is also true, predictability makes the experience less compelling. For example, while seeing the river otters and kingfishers on the river the other day was great, the fact that Eduardo knew where he would find them made it less special. When we went on elephants to see tigers in India, the tigers had been located beforehand. That made seeing the tigers less exciting than spotting tigers unexpectedly from a jeep. No, please, tell me that I’m not really saying that seeing tigers on elephant back is not all that exciting.

Getting back to what makes birding so exciting, another part of it is the complexity. You can identify birds by their size, shape, color, sound (Eduardo was constantly doing calls, sounds to imitate and attract them), flight pattern and habitat, and undoubtedly in other ways I’m leaving out. And, the ability to identify and name them is, well, Biblical. Didn’t God give Adam dominion over birds and animals by giving him the power to name them?

I struggle a bit with the trade offs between just seeing birds and photographing them. Certainly, you see them far better by just looking through glasses (at least with the photographic equipment that I have). But photographing them allows you to see them later, and share them with others. Of course, you could do that using a bird book, which would have far better photos. But, c’mon, that’s cheating, and, besides, it deprives you of the enjoyment of taking and working on the photos. Thinking about this now, I think I may strike the balance a bit differently next time, spending a bit of time looking at each bird through the glasses, before shifting to the camera.”if I miss a few shots in the process, no big deal.

And, since you raised the question, photographically, this will not be one of my more satisfying trips. That’s because my primary interest in photography is people, and I took very few photos of people on this trip. That doesn’t mean that I won’t spend weeks working on these photos and enjoying that. I will, but it won’t be as interesting to me as it would if I were working on photos of people.

Okay, time to end this rambling. Reading back over this summary of the trip makes me realize that it was a pretty damn good trip, after all. It’s been fun having you along, and I’ve appreciated the many comments I’ve gotten from you, both on the blog and in emails that you’ve sent. If you’re game for returning to Ghana and Nigeria (or, for new followers, want to try it for the first time), Carol and I will be returning with our good friends the Kipharts and the Olopades in late August. We’d love to have you join us.

One last photo to demonstrate how sometimes you hunt the world over for something that is sitting in your own back yard, or, in this case, your garage.


Drenched in sweat and rain

May 6

Our last full day in Brazil starts with a 4:30 AM ride that turns up nothing amazing.

Breakfast, again very good, back at the lodge. After photographing, mainly toucans, around the lodge, in light that is not very good, we set out on foot at 7:30, towards Eduardo’s Uncle Tutu’s cattle farm. It’s already sultry and overcast. Eduardo says it will rain. Heat means a lot of sweat, which makes the bird watching, and walking, less enjoyable.

Arrive at Uncle Tutu’s cattle farm as Uncle Tutu is heading out. Bird life on Uncle’s farm is different and about as amazing as at Jaguar. Mercifully, it begins to cool a bit after awhile, as we get a very light drizzle. Somebody from Jaguar comes to pick us up, and we get into the truck as it begins to rain, then pour very hard.

Get drenched walking the very short distance from the truck to the dining room, but the cold and damp actually feels good. Lot of rain comes through the roof and we sit in chairs that rest in puddles. Carol heads back to our room in her rain jacket to read. I stay in the dining room and pour over a couple hundred photos I took this morning to whittle them down for the blog. The whittling is a very imperfect process, as I eliminate photos based on tiny thumbnails. So, I’m not necessarily working from the best photos, and I can do only very minor work on them before posting. So, with those excuses, here’s a selection from this morning, including one of Uncle Tutu.





















After yet another good lunch, we wait until three for an afternoon drive, anticipating that the rain will have let up by then. But it has not, so we wait another half hour, then set out in what is still a very steady rain. The rain has had the salutary effect of cooling things off dramatically, enough so that I’m comfortable wearing my rain jacket for the first time this trip.

Major sighting this afternoon is a tapir, which we see for about three seconds as it runs across the road. The tapir is a large, horse-sized animal that lives on a vegetarian diet. Jaguars may try to attack them, but, if they do, the tapir runs into the woods and knocks the jaguar off with the brush. A few other very nice bird sightings, including the capped heron and the purple gallinule, but low light permits only poor photos. Also saw two cavys (rodents). Below, too, are pictures of the famed Transpantaneira Highway and one of its many wooden bridges.







After dinner, a last night drive in an effort to spot a jaguar. We find fresh tracks, but, despite valiant efforts by Eduardo, fail to find the actual jaguar. As Charlie Brown would say, “Curse you, Red Baron!”

A plethora of parrots and other colorful birds

May 5

Up early. Very good breakfast at 6:30 with Eduardo. The first place we stayed had probably twenty or so people. Here there are fewer. Two, actually. Us.

Set off walking around right near the breakfast place and there is an absolutely incredible array of birds, toucans, parrots, macaws, cuckoos. One could spend the day here watching and photographing. We tear ourselves away and begin walking, seeing many more birds. Eduardo is excellent at finding, identifying and pointing out birds to us. We weather the rush hour traffic, Eduardo’s cousin driving an American and Canadian around. They’ve lived for three years in Salvador, working for Ford, and will be moving out soon; from their body language, happily.

By 8:30, we’ve been out for an hour and a half, and it’s hot already. We get back to the lodge and have a welcome cold drink and a short sit. We take off in the truck for another hour and a quarter, spotting more birds, the return to the lodge, where we have another cool drink and we return to our room, where Carol goes outside for more birding, and I download photos. Several of them are quite presentable, sharp, but many of them are off slightly in focus due to difficulty caused by distance, handholding a long lens and faulty technique. Here’s some from the morning take, including one of Carol and Eduardo, and one of two Pantanal horses, who wade in water and eat grass in the water (I think you’ll be able to identify which are which).


















On our way to lunch, we notice a group of perhaps ten or twelve photographers, loaded with tripods and very fancy (and heavy) photo gear taking photos where we were taking them early this morning. Apparently, our lodge is such a fabulous birding site that guides take groups her (and pay Eduardo for the privilege). While I’m sure the equipment allows them to take fabulous bird photos, I too lazy to ever think about doing that. It’s just not where I’m at with my photography.

Okay, so let’s place our heroes for you. When we flew to Cuiaba (pronounced Kwee-ahba) from Rio, we flew South and West. Our drive to the Araras Lodge from Cuiaba was 50 km West and 75 km South. The Jaguar is another 85 km South. This afternoon, after another good lunch, we drove 36 more km South, as usual, stopping to identify birds, to Porto Jofre. All of this driving is along the Transpantaneta Highway, a dirt road well pock-marked and containing short wooden bridges over water approximately every kilometer. The building of the highway had a dramatic affect, transforming what was a big cattle raising area in which everyone worked together to fenced lots. The ecology was also changed because of the division of rivers.

Anyway, in Porto Jofre, about the southernmost part of Brazil’s Pantanal, after Eduardo negotiated bathroom permission for Carol on a large fishing vessel, we set out for a delightful 3-hour trip in an aluminum motor boat piloted expertly by Eduardo on two adjoining rivers, the Cuiaba River and the Piguiri Riverh. The river was cool and scenic, the bird life plentiful and the highlight was spotting and viewing a family of giant river otters as they made their way home, shortly before a lovely sunset.

Short aside: as Africa has it’s “Big Five,” so does the Pantanal. The Pantanal Five consist of the a Hyacinth Macaw, the Giant River Otter, the Giant anteater, the anaconda snake and the jaguar. We’ve seen the first three, and have one day left to complete the five.

The ride back to our lodge offered more sightings in the spotlight waved back and forth across the road by Eduardo as he swerved from side to side and lined up the many wooden bridges we had to cross. Probably the best sightings were several great-horned owls and a couple foxes. Managed to get a poor picture of the back of one of the owls, which I’m going to spare you seeing.

Arrived home with 5 minutes to wash before our 7 PM dinner, which again was remarkably good. We’re turning in early, because we’re to set out on a drive at 4:30 AM tomorrow. Well, hell, it’s our last chance to see an anaconda and a jaguar.

Here’s the afternoon’s take.












Dislodging to dat other lodge

May 4

Buffet breakfast, then walk through wooded, foresty, marshy area with a different guide named Thadeo. Among our walking group is Camilla, the Brazilian 20-month old daughter of a German father and Mexican mother. Makes me wish Maxi, 19 months, were along, as long as Carol was carrying him.

Words to describe our walk–hot, long, muddy, sweaty, very hot. Saw more birds and plant life, including pink crab eggs. Here are some photos.













Buffet lunch outside and goodbyes to people we’ve met the past couple days. Pack and prepare to be picked up for our transfer to Jaguar Ecological Preserve, where we’ll spend our last three nights in Brazil.

Eduardo, owner and guide at Jaguar, picks us up in a truck. Carol is stuffed in the back seat with the luggage as the truck back is loaded with a solar panel. I’m up front with Eduardo in the sorta air conditioned truck. Turns out that when Eduardo was about nine and his father was raising cattle, a guy from Santa Fe, NM was doing research on birds in the area and stayed with them. He told Eduardo’s father that he should give up the cattle and go into ecotourism. But his father said no, raising cattle was what he knew how to do. A few years later, though, he changed his mind. The guy from Santa Fe sent somebody down to teach Eduardo and some relatives how to speak English and, twenty years ago, the ecotourism business started, and Eduardo is pleased with the way it’s gone. Clearly ecotourism is a family business. His brother-in-law is a guide at the first place we stayed and we passed property of cousins on the way down, one of whose fathers was mayor of a nearby town, which accounts for the road that runs right by their property.

We’re switching to Jaguar, well, because of jaguars. We’re hoping to see one, and this place, because of it’s location, gives you a much better chance. Eduardo is understated, and sorta grows on you. Though he makes no show of it, he clearly knows all of the birds and all about them. Along the way, we stop frequently and probably see birds better, and with much less sweat, than we’ve seen to date. Two and a half hours later, we’ve traversed the 85 kilometers and arrive at Jaguar.

Luxurious it’s not, sort of Motel Eight-like, but not really worse than our prior place. It’ll do. The wildlife here appears great, both in and outside the room. A tree located near our room holds a vulture, 3 hyacinth macaws and another big bird whose identity we’re unsure of, let’s call him, “Ralph.” Inside, Carol captures a small bat she spots on the curtain and escorts it outside. The generator Eduardo has turned on generates air conditioning, which is good. The generator operates from 6PM to 6:30AM each day. If you want electricity at other times, you can get it for $75/hour.

We spend an hour in the room, then go up for dinner, which is actually quite good, especially the chicken and a passion fruit custard dessert. Eduardo joins us for dinner and we learn that his two kids, 16 and 18, live with their mother in Cuiaba, where they are studying. Eduardo expects to move to the US in five years or less to help with a mission of his church, perhaps in NY or San Francisco. It’s tough to find somebody to take charge of Jaguar, though. His son, 16, can’t wait to go to the US. His daughter is planning to go to medical school. His wife is not enthused about moving to the US.








We set out with Eduardo for a night drive, which proves singularly unsuccessful. While that’s a bit disappointing, it’s all part of the game; there are no guarantees when you’re looking for game. We’re back at the room early, which ought to give us a good night’s sleep before our 6:30 breakfast tomorrow.

Into the wild

May 2

We’re picked up at the hotel by Luiz and driver at 5:30 A.M. and drive to the airport, where we have a farewell coffee with Luiz.

Our flight leaves Rio a bit after 7:30 AM, stopping in the capital, Brasilia, where we change planes to fly to Cuiaba. We’ll arrive a bit after 11, but have to wait a couple hours for our van to the lodge. While it’s frustrating to kill days in this way, there’s no alternative.

Stretching across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland. Although not as well known as the Amazon Rainforest to its north, this gigantic seasonal floodplain is also home to a staggering variety of plants and wildlife.

Imagine a huge soup plate that slowly fills up with water and overflows in the rainy season, gradually empties during the dry season and then starts to fill up all over again. That image gives a good idea of what the Pantanal is like; a unique, rich, but threatened ecosystem located in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

​​The Pantanal covers an area of some 81,000 sq. miles, 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades.
​​The Pantanal is home to about 3500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325 fish species, 159 mammals, 53 amphibian and 98 reptiles.
​​Average yearly rainfall is 40-55 inches.
​​Over 80% of the Pantanal floodplains are submerged during the rainy seasons.
​​The name “Pantanal” comes from the Portuguese word pântano, meaning wetland, bog, swamp or marsh.

A plethora of animal species can be found in the Pantanal. There is estimated to be about 1000 bird species, 300 mammals and 9,000 invertebrates (note the variation in these numbers from those quoted above from a different source; you can take your pick, because I’m not going to count them), in addition to countless fascinating insects and other species. Some of the very rare and / or endangered animal species include:

• Marsh Deer 
• Giant River Otter 
• Hyacinth Macaw 
• Crowned Solitary Eagle
• Jaguar 
• Maned Wolf 
• Bush Dog 
• Capybara 
• South American Tapir 
• Giant Anteater 
• Yacare Caiman

We are met at the Cuiaba airport by our guide, Aynole, and we are transport by air conditioned van with two women from the Toronto area, Jean and Karen. We stop at a roadside restaurant for a melted cheese sandwich, then make many stops along our two and a half hour drive to spot various birds and caiman (Caimans are alligatorid crocodylians within Caimaninae. The group is one of two primary lineages within Alligatoridae, the other being alligators; aren’t you sorry you asked?) I don’t really have a long enough lens for shooting birds, so the photos are going to be somewhat disappointing.









We are staying at the Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge, which is quite basic, but comfortable enough. There’s air conditioning and wifi, so nothing else much matters. Carol took an afternoon walk around the grounds, but I was exhausted from lack of sleep, so I crashed. We attended part of an interesting slide presentation on jaguars, then had a perfectly fine, but unexceptional buffet dinner. There are quite a large number of people here, including families with small children. We ate with our guide and Jean and Karen, then took about a 45-minute walk with Aynole under the stars and with the sounds of the swampy land loud in our ears. Managed to spot water buffalo, caiman, bats and a few other animals back to the room to blog and retire at a decent hour.

Favela life and sambas

May 1

Today is a national holiday, the Workers’ Day that is celebrated around the world, except in our country. We start it out with our usual breakfast on the veranda. One could get used to this.

We are picked up at our hotel by, Rodrigo, a new guide from another company, who is taking us to the favela (shanty town) of Pavão-Pavãozinho, which stands on a hill overlooking Copacabana beach. Carol asks whether it’s dangerous, and Rodrigo says, wryly, “I will get you back.” Many of you probably will have read about the riots in a Rio favela that made international news, less than a week ago. Well, that’s the favela we are going to.

We walk down the very steep hill from our hotel to the train station below and take a train to a station close to the favela.

On the train, we learn that Rodrigo is quite an extraordinary fellow. He’s about thirty and, for starters, speaks Portugese, English, Spanish, Dutch, German and French. As his girlfriend is Norwegian, he’s learning that, too. He runs tours that are oriented to social projects, a bent that he gets from his mother, who long ago started a project to help aged people in Rio. In addition, Rodrigo helps businessmen from Europe, largely Dutch, find potential investments in Brazil, in agribusiness and other types of ventures.

Rodrigo has established relationships with many of the people in the favela we are visiting, has organized New Years parties that bring people up to the favela to view the activities on Copacabana Beach below.

He also has favela residents involved in the tours he does, thus getting them funds. His goal is for them to take it over. Both of Rodrigo’s parents grew up in favelas and made their way out, against substantial odds through hard work.

Rather than try to integrate what we leaned into poetic form, which is Carol’s bailiwick anyway, I’ll just try list some of those things, in no particular order.

1.8 million of Rio’s 6.2 million people live in favelas.

Many of them started in the late 19th century, when slavery was abolished and people moved into the cities. Housing was built by these people, originally of wood, and they squatted on the land. Recent laws allow people who have lived in a place for five years to get title to the property.

As this favela abuts a very well-to-do area and affords great water and beach views, land is starting to appreciate and beginning to be bought by people from outside the favela. The government has begun to put many police in the favelas, originally to wrest control from drug lords. Police are viewed by most in the favela as the enemy.

The recent riots broke out when police shot and killed a popular dancer, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rioting broke out and fires were set. The photos below include one of a burned out car and another wall with a mural of the dead dancer.



Though favelas are supposed to be very tough places, oddly, Carol and I both feel safer in the favela than we did in downtown Rio yesterday. This is largely because we are with Rodrigo, a tall, handsome young man who clearly has excellent relations with favela residents.

The government has paved some roads, put in a new subway station with an elevator, pumped water up to the houses, put in a new school, etc. Things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go. Everyone in the favela has a cellphone, according to Rodrigo.



We watch a soccer game on a cement lot, meet a young favela artist and see some of his paintings, then walk all the way down the hill and stop for a soft drink.




Rodrigo puts us in a taxi, headed for the botanical garden. This was not to be part of our tour, but we’ve decided to add it. Luiz offered to pick us up and take us there to show us around, but we didn’t think it was worth the fee and that we could as easily do it on our own. The gardens are huge and impressive, but we’re too tired and hot to do more than go to see a special orchid exhibit, then take a nice, air-conditioned taxi back to our hotel.


We have large, delicious cheese sandwiches on our veranda. We’re happy to have almost five hours before dinner to relax, blog, pack, shower, etc.

We take a walk over to the studio of an artist whose paintings we’ve admired at the hotel. He is very gracious in inviting us in, showing us around and introducing us to his wife. His current work is with bottle caps, interesting in its way, but a far cry from what we’d admired. He spent five years in New York in the 80’s, studying new techniques for his art. He lives and works I a beautiful old house with lovely views and heavy, chained security.

We walk from there to a local restaurant that had been recommended by our hotel, and we have a very good meal, filet mignon covered with cartelized onions and a nice wine sauce, wrapped in greens and sitting on potatoes. We come back to the hotel, settle up our bill and prepare to taste the night life of Rio.

Rio is renowned for its samba music and informal, laid-back way of life. One characteristic aspect of Rio’s nightlife is the many hidden venues where cariocas (Rio’s inhabitants) gather for a roda de samba. The atmosphere is that of a typical street party – a group of musicians plays well-known samba songs around a table, while a crowd of onlookers sings along to the music, drinking ice-cold beer or caipirinhas. Tonight we pretend we’re cariocas, though the discerning native could probably tell us apart. The first place is a really local bar in which we may well be the only outsiders. People know and greet each other and the musicians. We stay for two or three sets.




Afterwards we continued to a typical samba bar in a large, funky restored building in the bohemian district of Lapa, to hear live music.





We call it quits after this bar, say goodbye to Rodrigo and taxi home, arriving at 12:15, not much before we need to arise at 5 tomorrow morning. We’re looking forward to getting to an area where any danger is likely to come from non-human animals.

Rio from the ground, with a hint of Judaism and Israeli dance

April 30

Another breakfast on the veranda on what looks to be another picture-perfect, sunny day in a Rio. Yesterday’s weather was as good as it gets. So far, the beauty of Rio seems to be as seen from atop the city, and driving along the beautiful beaches. What we’ve seen of the city itself does not distinguish it from other large cities. One doesn’t feel the beauty of a Paris or Barcelona, or, closer to home, of a San Francisco, or, yes, a Chicago. But we’re going to explore the city more today, so, stay tuned.

But first, I seem to forget a something each night when I post the blog. Last night, I forgot to report that the 29th of each month is gnocchi night in Italian restaurants, so we shared three different kinds of gnocchi. Good, but very rich. Luiz knew of this and told us that the custom is that you’re supposed to put a dollar under your plate to bring good luck. We didn’t know about that, though.

Luiz picks us up and we take a very bumpy local bus over cobblestone roads down to the city. Carol declines a seat offered to her by several on the bus, because she does not have her hard seat, which she lost in Salvador. We arrive downtown and walk around a good deal. We learn a lot from Luiz about Brazilian history, and see both some of old Rio and new Rio, including an amazing busker who poses motionless as a statue.

We experience another small world phenomenon, encountering our friend, Scott Turow. Well, not exactly, but we see a translation of his book, Innocent.

It was Scott who at lunch a week ago had cautioned me to be very careful in Brazil. The wisdom of Scott’s advice was demonstrated yet again when, in broad daylight in downtown Rio, a young man bumps into our guide intentionally and tries to snatch a chain that Luiz is wearing around his neck. Luiz seems unaffected and more or less shrugs. A well-dressed man who witnesses this hands me a small plastic bag and motions for me to put this bag around the camera that I’m wearing around my neck. This experience makes us suspicious of everyone, watching those around us continuously, which is not a comfortable way to live. It makes me think of those who confront more serious threats of violence regularly in their lives and how fortunate I am not to be subjected to that. Our friend Andrew last night spoke of how this fear is the worst part of living in Brazil. He is reluctant to take out his iPhone on the street, locks car doors and spoke of how he knows several people who travel in armored cars. So, maybe you want to think twice about that trip to Brazil.

We walk to see the new art museum from the top of which we can get sense of the ambitious projects being undertaken in preparation for the Olympics, including destruction of a highway that had divided city. From the museum we can see from above the old and new Rio that we’ve seen at street level this morning, including the golden interior of a Baroque church.



We take a taxi to get to lunch at the iconic restaurant Confeitaria Colombo, the oldest coffee shop in Rio de Janeiro, originally opened as a meeting point for intellectuals and aristocrats. Built in 1894 and refurbished in 1914, it is a living portrait of Rio’s Belle Époque, retaining much of its Art Nouveau charm, with famous Belgian mirrors in hardwood frames and lovingly preserved Italian marble benches. See if you can find Carol in this photo.

After lunch we take a half-hour tour of the opera house with its elaborately refurbished interior, done in the very early twentieth century for the centennial of the founding of the Kingdom of Brazil, where we’ll see a performance this evening.

From the opera, we take a subway to Beth El, an orthodox synagogue. We are greeted warmly by the director, who studied in the U.S. And has two children living in Israel. We speak mainly English, but a few words of Yiddish and Hebrew are thrown in. This type of immediate connection is common whenever we stop at a synagogue when we travel.

Our host shows us around and encourages us to take photos. There is a beautiful tapestry above the ark and some very striking stained glass windows. The women are separated from the men and sit upstairs in a balcony. The congregation has a thousand members, and we’re sown a separate building that is used by younger congregants. Rio has approximately 50,000 Jews, San Paolo about 100,000 and there is a smattering elsewhere in the country.

Our host says that I should keep the kippah (yarmulke) he’s loaned me to wear while I’m in the synagogue, which I later discover was from Clara and Victor’s wedding on Nov 30, 2008. Amazing that today marks exactly 5 years and 5 months since Clara and Victor were wed. Doesn’t seem possible.




Taxi to Santa Teresa and walk around, visit a few galleries, stop for beer at well-known local bar, across from murals visible aside reflections of the bar in a mirror, where we meet a young lady who has spent a year and a half in Brazil doing various and sundry things and is heading home tomorrow. At a shop, Carol buys a nice platter. But she’s not intending to use it as a platter, but as a seat to replace the one she left in Salvador.

Back to our hotel to shower and rest/blog before heading down for a very good and leisurely dinner at Bistro Villarino, a restaurant near the opera house at which we stopped in to make a reservation earlier today. We then round the corner to the opera house where we see an absolutely fabulous modern dance company called Batsheva, which is based in Tel Aviv and somehow affiliated with Martha Graham. Make sure to keep an eye out for them, and, if you see they’re on, don’t miss them. Carol said that if they were doing the same program tomorrow (they’re not), she’d go see it again, and so would I. Back to the hotel to turn in.

Viewing Rio from on high

April 29

Breakfast on the veranda of our room. Ah, yes, it’s a tough life, but I know that somebody must live like this, and I’m prepared to do my part.

A footnote (pun intended) to yesterday’s blog. Walking along the beach with Rosa and Paul last night, we noticed some boys playing a game at a volleyball net. We assumed they were playing volleyball, but when we looked more closely, we noticed that they were getting the ball over the net using soccer rules, i.e. never touching the ball with their hands. It’s called foot volley, and is quite amazing to watch.

Picked up at 9 by our guide, Luiz, who had met us at the airport yesterday. A full day of traditional Rio sightseeing. At Corcovado and Sugar Loaf. After a scenic ride along the Rodrigo de Feitas Lagoon, we arrive at the Cosme Velho district, where we board a cog-train, which takes us right through the Tijuca Forest, to the top of Concovado (hunchback) mountain. On our way up, we enjoy beautiful views of the Guanabara Bay,the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the beach of Ipanema and Leblon and the Rio-Niteroi Bridge. Arriving at the base of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, we have a stunning 360 degree view over the city. The statue was paid for, constructed and owned by the Catholic Church. Though it was intended to be completed for the centennial of independence in 1922, delays in raising funds and construction postponed its completion until 1931 (query whether the work planned for the World Cup and Olympics will meet a similar fate). The statue is almost 100 feet high, about the height of the Statue of Liberty, minus the torch, and the arm span of the statue is some ninety feet.

Carol, of course, had to feed a monkey a pistachio nut she had in her purse. Riding back down on the tram, we are entertained by some young Brazilian musicians, who are playing for tips and succeed in getting several of the women on the car to dance with them. Fun.



The afternoon involved taking two cable cars up to the top of Sugar Loaf, a mountain that looks back on the city of Rio and Concovado, rather than looking out from the city towards the bay, as we did this morning. Now, I know this sounds like a pretty boring day, and the photos below won’t do it justice, but it’s impossible to overstate how breathtaking the city of Rio is. Looking at it for a day was well worth the time.










I lied a little bit, though, because we did do several other things, the most interesting of which was stopping at a museum of naïve art that has a collection of some 6000 items from all around the world, the collection of a Jewish jeweler. Wonderful to look at, and many of the pieces were extremely good. We also stopped for lunch at a Brazilian steakhouse in Ipanema, whose ample salad bar of seafood items more than satisfied Carol. And we ran three errands, two of which were successful (buying tickets for a modern dance concert at the opera house tomorrow night and getting cash at an ATM). The third, trying to find an orthopedic seat for Carol at two different places, was not.

Returned back to the hotel to rest. You’ve probably figured out by now that, for me, “rest” is a synonym for “blog”.

Took a taxi to D” Amici, a very good Italian restaurant in Copacabana, where we met Andrew Janszky, who heads up the Brazilian operation for a large New York firm, Milbank. I had gotten to know Andrew almost thirty years ago, when he was the hiring partner of Shearman & Sterling, a consulting client of mine. Andrew is based in San Paolo, but was able to arrange business in Rio, so that we could have dinner together. So, if anyone needs proof of the smallness of the world, in less than a week, Carol and I have had dinner with a Brazilian oncologist and his radiologist wife, a Brazilian cardiologist and her economist husband and a Brazilian/American lawyer.

Dinner with Andrew was terrific, once we finally found the place. The taxi driver could not find it and dropped us at a spot that was not our restaurant. After getting help from a couple people we found, who, luckily, spoke English we located the restaurant.

Andre (his real name, which he goes by in Brazil) is a lot of fun, lively, and we picked up pretty-much where we left off some twenty-five years ago. He has a unique perspective, having been born in Brazil of Hungarian parents, moved to and lived in NY, and now living half time in NY and half in Brazil. Andrew loves the Brazilian people but finds it frustrating to live with constant concerns about safety. I think it’s fair to say that he’s down on many aspects of Brazilian life, when compared to life in the U.S. After a delightful, long dinner with much conversation, Andrew sent us back to our hotel with the driver he uses in Rio.

Hi-Ho Hee-o, and Hurray for Mama Ruisa

April 28

After finishing our packing, on which we’d gotten a good start last night, we enjoyed another good breakfast at the hotel. Picked up by Gabriela and our driver at 8:30 and arrived at the airport two hours ahead of time for our 11:15 flight. We’re sitting here in a modern, but not very well air conditioned, airport. I ask Carol whether she thinks there’s early boarding available for people who are impatient. She says I can try.

Some reflections on our time in Salvador. It was not what we expected. We’d gone there because of the strong African influence and, while we understand that and saw and heard some of it, we did not really feel it the way we’d anticipated. Part of this may have been the poor timing for seeing the Candomble religion in action. Undoubtedly, too, our experience was colored by Carol’s necklace having been stolen, after which we were constantly on the watch. Gabriela and others warned me about my camera, so I wore it around my neck and kept a tight grip on it.

On the other hand, one can argue that this adverse experience was a dose of the reality of Brazil. And there certainly were aspects of our days here that were great–meeting Rodrigo and Fernanda, the Calafeta social project, the ballet folklorico, traversing the streets of the Pelourinho in the pouring rain with Gabriela, some very good food, the church experiences–so it was far from a total loss. The Pelourinho area holds considerable charm, but also a certain unreality. Rodrigo told us that, while Fernanda had lived in Salvador her whole life, she’d really only been to the area (other than to eat at some good restaurants) two times. So staying where we did was probably not experiencing the real Salvador.

Now for a bit of information I’ve stolen from various sources about Rio. First of all, so that you’ll really feel in the know, Rio is pronounce Hee-o. You can be obnoxious, as I’ll almost certainly be, and correct folks next time they show their ignorance by mispronouncing it. (Just as I assume you correct people when they mispronounce the Spanish city of Barthelona.)
Rio is the capital city of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city of Brazil, and the third largest metropolitan area and agglomeration in South America. There are approximately 6.3 million people living within the city proper, making it the 6th largest in the Americas and 26th in the world. It is the only state to be bordered by all the other states in the same macroregion. These are Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and São Paulo. It is also bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. This state has a total area of 43 653 square kilometres.

Although originally inhabited by native tribes, Rio de Janeiro is considered to have been ‘discovered’ when Portuguese explorers encountered Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1502. The name Rio de Janeiro means “River of January”, and is based upon finding this destination on this date. It would be some 53 years later that one of the islands of Guanabara Bay was colonized and occupied by 500 French settlers. Today, this island is known as Villegagnon Island. Then, on 1 March 1565, the Portuguese established the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, while Guanabara Bay was called Rio de Janeiro.

During the 1600’s, Rio became a convenient port for the transport of gold and precious stones. For this reason, the colonial administration was moved to the area in 1763 from Salvador. In 1808, the city saw an influx of Portuguese royal family and associated Lisbon nobles, who were escaping the Napoleonic invasion in their homeland. These Portugese ousted those who were occupying homes and territory within Rio to take over their established abodes. With these noblemen and royals came hundreds of thousands of slaves, who crossed the ocean from Africa. In 1808, when the Portuguese Royal Court transferred itself from Portugal to Brazil, Rio de Janeiro became the chosen seat of the court of Queen Maria I of Portugal, who subsequently, in 1815, under the leadership of her son, the Prince Regent, and future King João VI of Portugal, raised Brazil to the dignity of a kingdom, within the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and Algarves. Rio stayed the capital of the monarchy until 1822, when the War of Brazilian Independence began. It subsequently served as the capital of the independent monarchy, the Empire of Brazil, until 1889, and then the capital of a republican Brazil until 1960.

Rio de Janeiro represents the second largest GDP in the country (and 30th largest in the world in 2008), estimated at nearly US$201 billion, and is headquarters to two of Brazil’s major companies—Petrobras and Vale, and major oil companies and telephony in Brazil, besides the largest conglomerate of media and communications companies in Latin America, the Globo Organizations. The home of many universities and institutes, it is the second largest center of research and development in Brazil, accounting for 17% of national scientific production—according to 2005 data.

Rio is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere and is known for its natural settings, carnival celebrations, samba, Bossa Nova, balneario beaches such as Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. Some of the most famous landmarks in addition to the beaches include the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer (“Cristo Redentor”) atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; Sugarloaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) with its cable car; the Sambódromo, a permanent grandstand-lined parade avenue which is used during Carnival; and Maracanã Stadium, one of the world’s largest football stadiums.

Rio will be one of the official Host Cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and its Maracanã Stadium, which held the final of the 1950 FIFA World Cup and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, will host the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympics and the Summer Paralympics for the first time a South American and Portuguese-speaking nation will be hosting the event. It will be only the third time the Olympics will be held in a Southern Hemisphere city.

We’re about an hour late. Rio looks beautiful, mountains on one side, water on the other. A tremendous amount of work is being done, some of it in preparation for the World Cup, and major stuff in preparation for the Olympics. The old waterfront is being completely rebuilt and roads moved, so that we are routed through the downtown area to get to Santa Teresa, where our hotel/guest house is located. Fortunately, the tour I’d thought we were doing this afternoon had been switched to another day, as we would not have had time to do it.

We are staying at the Mama Ruisa, a colonial-style hotel located in Santa Teresa overlooking the Bay of Botafogo, 30 minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from Copacabana and Ipanema, and 10 minutes from the historic centre. The French-run property has only seven rooms, all with exclusive decoration, and serves breakfast on the verandah overlooking the bay. Okay, so that’s the stock description of the place, but doesn’t come close to describing how lovely it is. Gorgeous, huge room with bath, shower and walk-in closet, spacious living room with great art work, fabulous views, pool and garden area, wifi. (The photos below won’t do it justice, either.). We may never leave this place.



We took a walk up the hill from our guest house to the main street, which feels funky and a little Bohemian. There are a number of small restaurants, bars, arty stores, etc. As was true in Salvador, murals line many streets, though they appear to be less polished, if that’s a word that applies to graffiti, than many we saw in Havana.



We wound up stopping for a small snack at what turned out to be a movie theater. There we had a long conversation with a young European woman who is building a house in Santa Teresa, but whose 7-year old daughter is in Italy with her husband. She’d lived in London and other places, and spoke articulately about the shortcomings of Brazil, including infrastructure, education, corruption, health. She described it as chaotic, but, at the same time, clearly has a love for the country.

Returned home and made arrangements to have dinner with Rosa (more below) and cleaned up and rested a bit. We met for dinner with a pediatric cardiologist who is a good friend of our close friend, Mike Freed. Rosa Barbosa took a 6 month sabbatical in Boston, where Mike is a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s. Rosa has set up a foundation and a cardiac hospital to take care of indigent children with congenital heart disease in Rio. Great time with Rosa and her husband, Paul, who is a retired economist. Rosa’s dedication and drive for the work she does is amazing. Her diminutive size notwithstanding, one underestimates her at their own peril.

After dinner and two delicious caipirinhas, a typical Brazilian drink that they introduced me to, we taxied back to our guesthouse.

Kaleidoscope in the rain

April 27

Excellent breakfast in the hotel before being picked up by Gabriela for a walking tour around the historical old town at 9AM. The Pelourinho is situated in the historical center of Salvador. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985, it is a great example of colonial history and symbol of the black movement in Bahia. Pelourinho literally means the pillary where slaves were beaten, pillaried. The Pelourinho contains a number of churches, museums, local artists’ studios, galleries, shops and restaurants.

We had a bit of a zany tour, because it started in drizzle, evolved to a really heavy rain (which caused us and Gabriela to purchase umbrellas) and eventually subsided, after we stopped for coffee. The umbrella business was definitely the business to be in this morning. We ducked into various artist studios, shops and churches, in part to explore them and in part to escape the rain. Because it’s Sunday, many places are not open. A holiday in honor of St. Benedict was being celebrated, with music and processions in the elaborate São Francisco Church and in a Black church named Our Lady of the Something-or-other (not its actual name) and we visited the Cathedral Basílica. As we walked we saw the cobble-stoned, colorful streets of the historic district.

We walked (in pouring rain) to the Elevador Lacerda, built in 1873 and connecting nowadays the Upper City and the Lower City as an important means of transport both for locals and tourists. From there we would have gotten a panoramic view of the All Saints Bay and Mercado Modelo, except that we pretty-much couldn’t see shit (slight exaggeration, blogger’s license).

Gabriela is a fun guide and companion, and her personality engages everyone we encountered.

After we left Gabriela, at noon, we visited a very interesting museum that combined African masks and statuary with a fascinating collection of odd musical instruments made by a Swiss craftsman. We wished we could have understood more (or at least some) about the instruments, but they were most interesting to look at, anyway.

So, there emerged a sort of pleasing kaleidoscope of an experience to our morning, not exactly what we’d optimally have planned, but memorable and enjoyable nonetheless. I hope that the photos below capture something of the scope and nature of that experience.













Rodrigo has trouble getting near the hotel, but does eventually, minus Fernanda and Julia, because the latter has a runny nose. We try to park nearby, but nothing is around, so we engage the services of a young boy to lead us to a spot. By the time we get there, Rodrigo decides that this is not such a good idea, but needs the help of the boy to lead us out. Rodrigo gives the boy some money to change, so that he can give him a tip. I can’t believe Rodrigo has done this and, of course, the boy never returns. Rodrigo is philosophical about all this, and we’re now aware that it’s not only tourists who get taken in.

We drive to the Igreja do Senhor do Bonfim church, where a service is in progress. A young woman is tying a ribbon to the fence, like the ribbons at the church we saw this morning.

We go into a room that has wax arms, legs and organs hanging from the ceiling, tributes for the healing that people whose pictures and letters of thanks are displayed in another wall of the room.


We see the odd instrument that the guy played at the ballet last night, and Rodrigo tells us that it is called a berimbau, and that he knows how to play it. It seems that he studied martial arts for two years, and knows how to do the acrobatic dancing/fighting that the dancers did last night. Those who learn the martial arts are required to learn how to play the berimbau, as it is viewed as part of the same training. So, the things we saw at the ballet last night are starting to make more sense.

From the church, Rodrigo takes us to Sorventeria de Ribeiria, an ice cream place that was founded in 1931. We feel compelled to partake, Carol toasted coconut and me, at Rodrigo’s suggestion, tapioca. After the ice cream, Rodrigo takes us back near our hotels. Our good-byes are not that sad, as we’ve agreed to have dinner in Chicago with Rodrigo and Fernanda when they come for a big oncologists’ meeting late next month. We’ll finally get to meet Julia, but in Chicago, not Brazil.

Carol and I go straight to a restaurant Gabriela has recommended not far from the hotel, called Maria Mauro. It’s quite good, but not as wonderful as last night’s meal.

In the lobby, we chat for over half an hour with a couple from New York, Anne and Charlie, a FDA lawyer. They’ve been to Rio and Iguazu Falls, and then had a fabulous time on the Amazon.

We go up to the room, where Carol packs and I work on this damn blog.

Mujeres de Calafate

April 26

Returned to the world of the living, after a great night’s sleep. Very good breakfast served to us on a lovely little tiled patio in the hotel. Able to check emails as we await the start of our full day tour with Gabriela, which starts at 8 AM.

To circle back to yesterday, the ride from the airport is along a highway appropriate to a city of Salvador’s size, over 3 million. As we arrived midday, traffic was not horrendous, though Gabriela says that it is in rush hour. Very poor areas are mixed with new, modern buildings.


The transportation system languishes because of poor government supervision and corruption. The train extends for only 131/2 kilometers.

Last night’s dinner was ordered for us by Rodrigo and Fernanda, and consisted of traditional dishes of octopus and shrimp, called moqueca, served in two very large boiling pots of Palm oil and eaten with rice and a flour-like powder. We’d had crab appetizers, as they were delayed because their baby sitter for Julia was late.

Sorry for the diversion, now back to today. Our first and most interesting stop of the day was to see and get to know a serious social action project, Mujeres de Calafate, which works for positive results for those living in a social risk area. Situated in one of Salvador´s favelas (shanty towns), the project was started in 1992. It deals primarily with issues relating to protection of abused women and use of condoms. It’s members engage in various entrepreneurial projects to raise funds. We spent two and a half hours talking to three generations of women, starting with the 80-year old grandmother in whose house the operation is centered and including five adorable granddaughters around the age of 10, who both greeted us and, at the end, showed us off with hugs. They will be the next generation to carry on the work of the project. Our main contact was with a 24-year old, who looked about 15 and had a child two years ago. Gabriela, our guide, was fascinated with the group and served ably as our translator. We walked all around the hilly area with project members, including the young girls.







As we left the project people, Carol and I noticed a Seventh Day Adventist service in a sort of storefront setting. We wandered in and were received very warmly, with people giving us their seats and handing us prayer books and pointing to the place we were at in the service from time to time. We stayed about 15 minutes or so.


Next we went to a Cantambole area, where a religion that combines African gods with Catholicism is practiced. This is akin to the Santeria religion I’d seen in Cuba. I was very interested in this, and Gabriela was knowledgable and able to talk about it as we walked around the area and looked at the outside of the temple buildings. Unfortunately everything was closed up and there were no services being held, because of proximity to Lent. This was not Gabriela’s fault, but was very disappointing to me. On top of it, no photos were allowed. Bummer.

We were driven down to the port, for a brief stop to see some fishermen and a chapel to the mermaid goddess. From there we went to a little restaurant where we had small (meaning huge) sorbets, Carol mango and me and Gabriela, banana. They were delicious, filling and the cold really hit the spot. I had changed some money with Gabriela, rather than look for a bank. Her rate was considerably better than at the airport, because no fees were involved.

We went down to the very large marketplace and walked around for an hour. Gabriela explained what everything (vegetables, fruit, meat and other goods) was, and, telling us that the prices were less than half of what she generally pays, proceeded to buy eggs, nuts and something else. She is 47 years old, married to a 57-year old police officer and has a 17-year old son. She is zippy, open and fun. While the market was interesting enough, at this point carol and I have seen so many markets around the world that it was not new.

We stopped to buy tickets for a ballet folklorico performance tonight (after switching our plans with Rodrigo and Fernanda to tomorrow afternoon, since they could not find a baby sitter for Julia). I noticed a sign that seemed to me to suggest that there were discounts for old farts like us. Gabriela asked. Fifty percent off. Yes! It occasionally pays to be old. We walked around the area near our hotel a bit, trying unsuccessfully to get money from a bank ATM, and then Gabriela walked us back to our hotel, where we rested before our evening activities. Not to ruin the suspense, but the evening started out really good, and ended up really not so good at all.

After having our complimentary drinks at our hotel, we walked to a restaurant recommended by Gabriela a few blocks away in the Hotel Villa Bahia. There we had a terrific dinner in a little patio area. I had the sea bass over black rice with a coconut crust and vegetables. Carol had a mushroom and vegetable ragout over palenta. Excellent.

We taxied to the Teatro Castro Alves for the Ballet Folklorico, arriving almost an hour early. The performance was quite spectacular and some of the elements were memorable, including the opening in which the entire cast marched down the aisles singing, a guy who played a really weird and interesting sounding instrument, some incredible drumming and some very acrobatic male dancers. The program could definitely have benefited from some judicious trimming, but it was overall well worth seeing.

Taxied back to the hotel area where, walking down the street a young guy ripped a thin gold chain off of Carol’s neck and ran off. She was unhurt, but upset at having lost the necklace she’d had for forty years. We’d been warned about this, and Carol had been told not to wear necklaces, but still…I guess at least we can say that we had an authentic Brazilian experience. Worse than losing the necklace, Carol lost the seat she uses to help her back, apparently having left it in the taxi. The guy at our hotel called the taxi company to report it, so perhaps the driver will find and return it. But that seems rather unlikely. So, a lousy end to the day.

Let the games begin

April 24-25

Spent the day packing and getting ready (okay, piddling around) for our 9:30 PM departure, a non-stop flight to Sao Paolo, more than 10 hours and over 5000 miles away, where we’ll have a layover of about 3 hours before continuing on to Salvador de Bahia, a flight of a bit over two hours. Yes, it’s a pretty long haul, but we’re rather used to it, and have done considerably longer. Truth is, it would be a really long walk, so it’s best to just suck it up and get on with it.

The airport experience was pretty-much the airport experience. There was some unexplained trouble in getting our boarding passes. Carol was randomly selected for the fast security line; I was not.

Yesterday I’d had lunch with a friend who had been to Brazil four times, and cautioned me strongly about the dangers of travel there, advising me to get a money belt to wear. Really, I asked. Really. I’d told Carol, so, as she got through the security line first, she found a store that sold money belts and had one put aside for me. At the counter, I asked one of the two young male employees whether the belt was worn under the pants. When they said it was, Carol asked whether I’d be able to close my pants. If not, I told her, you’ll hold them up. One of the two guys immediately asked how long we’d been married. I said that, if we make it to June, it will be forty-nine years. They were amazed, smiled and congratulated us. We’re amazed, too. Money belt purchased, but not yet donned (I’ll have $21 less to store in the belt), we headed to the United Club, where I overloaded with crap, before it was time to board our flight.

Now’s the time you regret not having read more about where you’re going and how, despite your vow to do better, you’ve once again put more in your suitcase than you need. This reminds me of a story that a very bright young woman investment banker told me about her interview experience. As a consultant, I was talking to some prize hires of my premier investment banking client so as to be able to give them advice about recruiting. The woman told me that she was asked repeatedly by bankers what her worst characteristic was. Evidently bankers thought this was a clever question and that they were the only ones who used it. Most interviewees answered by sneaking in a positive trait as their worst characteristic, for example, “I’m a perfectionist and can never settle for less than the best” or “I sometimes drive myself too hard to accomplish my goals.” Anyway, this woman said that she got so sick of it that she began to answer the question of what was her worst characteristic by saying, “I over-pack.” I’d have hired her on the spot.

But I digress….We are traveling Economy Plus, which is roomier than coach, but much less expensive than Business Class, a sort of compromise. Announcements are in English and Portuguese, a language I’ve not heard before, a kind of cross between Spanish and French. I can pick out a (very) few words with my Spanish. Luckily, though, I’m fluent in English. I’ll use my ten hours of flight to read some short stories by Native American author Sherman Alexie, which Carol and I are reading for our book group, review a book I bought on the operation of my camera, waste time on Sodukos and try, but fail, to sleep. All of my reading is on my iPad, as I’ve totally crossed over to the dark side. Oh, yes, and write in the blog. For instance, now I’ll give you some information on where we’re headed, Salvador de Bahia.

As the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, Salvador de Bahia witnessed the blending of European, African and Amerindian cultures. It was also, from 1558, the first slave market in the New World, with slaves arriving to work on the sugar plantations. The city has managed to preserve many outstanding Renaissance buildings. A special feature of the old town are the brightly colored houses, often decorated with fine stucco-work. As the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, Salvador de Bahia witnessed the blending of European, African and Amerindian cultures. It was also, from 1558, the first slave market in the New World, with slaves arriving to work on the sugar plantations.

As early as 1549, the Governor General, Thome de Souza, on the orders of João II of Portugal, made Salvador the seat of the royal administration. It played a leading economic and political role until 1763, when the seat of administration was transferred to Rio de Janeiro. The upper city, located in the area of Bahia de Todos los Santos, was discovered in 1502 by Amerigo Vespucci, and has been preserved by its historical evolution. It was built upon a ridge parallel to the Atlantic coast, which made possible defense against Spanish (1580) and Dutch (1624) attacks.
The historical centre itself, which revolves around the Pelourinho quarter with its triangular place, is characterized by its fidelity to the 16th-century plan, the density of its monuments, and the homogeneity of its construction on a hilly and picturesque site which embellishes the urban scenery by providing steeply falling and ascending views of incomparable beauty.

For those who may be interested, here is a very brief (and not very pretty) history of slavery in Brazil:

The slave trade

Initially the Portuguese seemed to hit it off with Brazil’s natives. There was even an exchange of presents between Cabral’s men and the Indians on the beach, with a Portuguese sombrero swapped for feather headdresses. Relations cooled when the Portuguese started enslaving their neighbors for work on the sugarcane plantations. Yet, for a variety of reasons the Portuguese felt the Indians didn’t make great slaves and turned instead to Africa’s already existing slave trade.

African slaves started to pour into Brazil’s slave markets from about 1550. They were torn from a variety of tribes in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné, as well as the Sudan and Congo. Whatever their origins and cultures, their destinations were identical: slave markets such as Salvador’s Pelourinho or Belém’s Mercado Ver-o-Peso. By the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, around 3.6 million Africans had been shipped to Brazil – nearly 40% of the total that came to the New World.

Africans were seen as better workers and less susceptible to the European diseases that had proved the undoing of so many Indians. In short, they were a better investment. Yet the Portuguese didn’t go out of their way to protect this investment. Slaves were brought to Brazil in subhuman conditions: taken from their families and packed into squalid ships for the month-long journey to Brazil.

Visitors to the beaches of Porto de Galinhas, near Recife, might not pick up on the area’s grim past. Even after abolition, slave traders continued to smuggle in slaves often packed into a ship’s hull under crates full of galinhas (chickens).

Masters & slaves

For those who survived such ordeals, arrival in Brazil meant only continued suffering. A slave’s existence was one of brutality and humiliation. Kind masters were the exception, not the rule, and labor on the plantations was relentless. In temperatures that often exceeded 30°C (86°F), slaves were required to work as many as 17 hours each day, before retiring to the squalid senzala (slave quarters), and with as many as 200 slaves packed into each dwelling, hygiene was a concept as remote as the distant coasts of Africa. Dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis and scurvy were rife; malnutrition a fact of life. Syphilis also plagued a slave population sexually exploited by its masters.

Sexual relations between masters and slaves were so common that a large mixed-race population soon emerged. Off the plantations there was a shortage of white women, so many poorer white settlers lived with black or Indian women. Brazil was already famous for its sexual permissiveness by the beginning of the 18th century.

Aside from the senzala, the other main institution of the sugar plantation was the casa grande (‘big house’) – the luxurious mansion from which the masters would control their slaves.

Resistance & the Quilombos

Resistance to slavery took many forms. Documents of the period refer to the desperation of the slaves who starved themselves to death, killed their babies or fled. Sabotage and theft were frequent, as were work slowdowns, stoppages and revolts.

Other slaves sought solace in African religion and culture. The mix of Catholicism (made compulsory by slave masters) and African traditions spawned a syncretic religion on the sugar plantations, known today as Candomblé. The slaves masked illegal customs with a facade of Catholic saints and rituals. The martial art capoeira also grew out of the slave communities.

Many slaves escaped from their masters to form quilombos, communities of runaway slaves that quickly spread across the countryside. The most famous, the Republic of Palmares, which survived through much of the 17th century, was home to some 20, 000 people. Palmares was a network of quilombos covering a broad tract of lush tropical forest straddling the border of Alagoas and Pernambuco states. Under their leaders Ganga Zumba and his son-in-law Zumbi, its citizens became pioneers of guerrilla warfare, repeatedly fending off Portuguese attacks between 1654 and 1695. Eventually Palmares fell to a force of bandeirantes from São Paulo.
As abolitionist sentiment grew in the 19th century, many (unsuccessful) slave rebellions were staged, the quilombos received more support and ever-greater numbers of slaves fled the plantations. Only abolition itself, in 1888, stopped the growth of quilombos. Over 700 villages that started as quilombos remain today. Some were so isolated that they remained completely out of contact with white Brazilians until the last couple of decades.

In San Paolo, we collect our bags and, of course, run into a fellow we know who is in our congregation in Evanston. He’s in San Paolo for business for a couple days. We recheck our bags to Salvador, change money and have time for a drink and ice cream. We’re able to get wifi and so check our email.

Trip to Salvador is uneventful, and we meet our guide, Gabriela outside baggage claim. She is a live wire, originally from Buenos Aires, and we ride with her in the air conditioned comfort of our car some 40 minutes to our hotel, which is in the heart of the cobble-stoned historic district. Quaint hotel, Casa de Amarelindo, with a very comfortable room on the third floor, which hereafter I plan to take the slow elevator to reach. We forego a walk around the cobblestones and colorful historic district to rest up AND SHOWER, before dinner.

We take about a half hour taxi ride to the authentic, local restaurant called Restaurante Yemanja, where we meet Rodrigo and Fernanda, two delightful and lovely 30-year old doctors with whom we’ve been put in touch by the Olopades, our Nigerian doctor friends at the University of Chicago, with whom we’ve traveled to Ghana and Nigeria. Rodrigo is an oncologist, who spent two months at the U of C, and Fernanda is a radiologist who spent the time in Chicago at Northwestern. We learn all about their families, including their 4-month old daughter, Julie. They could not be more delightful dinner companions and, before they drive us home, we make plans to get together tomorrow night. Below is a photo of them, and of Carol, checking emails.

It’s about 11PM, and we plan to crash, hoping to be ourselves (whatever that means) tomorrow. Then we begin the real trip, and, hopefully, photographs.



Prepare to Samba

Okay, ready? We take off late Thursday.

So, why Brazil? Because we’re not going to Bolivia. Now that may require a bit of explanation. I’d gotten the notion that we should go to Bolivia, so that when I told people we were going there I’d get to hear, “You’re going where?” Pretty much nobody goes to Bolivia.

So, I found a travel agent and we worked through multiple drafts of itineraries, before arriving at one that looked great. I was about to book the trip when I noticed that virtually everywhere we were going was very high altitude. While I’d survived at heights in Cuzco in Peru, it would be wrong to say I thrived there. So, after a (very short) discussion with Carol, we decide uh-uh.

I felt like a complete dolt. My travel agent had not hid the altitude from me. It was there all along, but I just hadn’t focused on it. So, I contacted our agent, told him I felt stupid, but we weren’t going to do Bolivia. He’d been so helpful, though, I told him, we’d like to have him plan a trip someplace else for us (in retrospect, he may well not have regarded this as good news), where would he suggest? Brazil.

So, that’s why we’re going to Brazil. The more I explored, though, the more I came to feel that this would be an even better trip for us than Bolivia. We’ve decide to spend time in Salvador de Bahia (an area still heavily influenced by African culture), Rio (because, well, it’s Rio) and a large game area called The Pantanal (on the map below, it’s near Cuiaba, west of Brasilia and near Bolivia). We passed up going to other places we might have, most noticeably, Iguazu Falls, which everyone says is spectacular, because, well, we can’t do everything.

Following my normal policy, I’ve stolen information shamelessly from many different websites. I feel justified in doing this, because I’m doing it selflessly, for your benefit, not mine. But will I get the thanks I deserve? Probably not. So, here’s some stuff.


The Federative Republic of Brazil is simultaneously South America’s largest country (by both population and geographical size) as well as one of its most diverse and fascinating. It is filled to the brim with intriguing people, plants and animals as well as liberal doses of history, religion, culture and sporting greatness. (Okay, so this is puffery. Remember, I just plagiarized this, I didn’t write it.) Brazil is a mega-country: fifth in the world in area, sixth in population, tenth in economic production, seventh in steel production, the world’s fourth largest agricultural exporter, and increasingly an industrial power.

The most densely populated parts of Brazil are in the south-central regions, which include major urban conglomerates like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Because of the rapid growth experienced by this country in terms of urban development, industrialization and population at the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil is facing a number of social, environmental and political challenges. However, it is also because of this growth that it is doing so well in terms of its economy. In fact, it is one of the world’s largest and most significant economies. It is also the only Portuguese-speaking country in both North and South America.

This Portuguese heritage dates back to the 1700’s, when Brazil was first colonized by this European nation. During its rich and complex history, slavery was a major part of the Brazilian heritage, although this was never formally recorded in the annals of history. Slaves were brought to the country across the Pacific Ocean from Africa. Therefore, there is also a large proportion of Brazilian inhabitants that have an African heritage. Others of European and Asian descent immigrated to Brazil in the 19th century. These ones were mainly from Japan, Poland, Spain, Italy and Germany. Therefore, this country is now a melting pot of ethnic and cultural diversity. Despite such diversity, Brazil maintains strong national pride and religious devotion. The vast majority, approximately 75%, of the population is Roman Catholic, while the rest are largely Christian or subscribe to the various African-based beliefs.

In terms of the local culture, Brazil continues to be influenced by the traditions and customs of the Portuguese. This is evident in the architecture, music, literature, cuisine, dance, religion and theatre of the country.

It’s really not possible here to summarize the history of Brazil, which in the twentieth century included a period of some twenty years of military rule which ended in 1985. There followed periods of extreme financial difficulty, including inflation, which in the early 1990s reached an annual rate of 5000%. The last twenty years have involved attempts to get the economy in order and address issues of poverty, health, education, the rural landless and political scandals. The best short history I found is at

The politics of Brazil take place in a framework of a federal presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. The political and administrative organization of Brazil comprises the federal government, the states, the federal district and the municipalities.

The federal government exercises control over the central government and is divided into three independent branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Executive power is exercised by the President, advised by a cabinet. Legislative power is vested upon the National Congress, a two-chamber legislature comprising the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Judicial power is exercised by the judiciary, consisting of the Supreme Federal Court, the Superior Court of Justice and other Superior Courts, the National Justice Council and the Regional Federal Courts.

The states are autonomous sub-national entities with their own constitutions and governments that, together with the other federal units, form the Federative Republic of Brazil. Currently, Brazil is divided politically and administratively into 27 federal units, being 26 states and one federal district. The executive power is exercised by a governor elected to a four-year term. The judiciary is exercised by courts of first and second instance addressing the common justice. Each State has a unicameral legislature with deputies who vote state laws.

Brazil enjoys an extensive coastline that measures almost 7500 kilometres (or more than 4600 miles). Its other borders are made up of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. In fact, Ecuador and Chile are the only South American countries with which Brazil does not share its borders. There are various groups of islands that also belong to Brazil, such as Saint Peter, Trindade and Fernando de Noronha, amongst others. Its entire area measures exactly 8,514,876.599 square kilometres or 3,287,612 square miles.

Apart from being geographically large, Brazil is also naturally diverse. It comprises dense rain forests and jungles, expanses of coastline, towering mountains, oceanic archipelagos (or clusters of islands), rivers, scrublands and rolling plains. Because of such a variation in habitats available to plants and animals, Brazil boasts a rich array of fauna and flora. In fact,
scientists estimate that this South American country is home to about four million different species. Particularly extensive are this country’s populations of birds and amphibians.

Finally: a quick, two-part quiz to see whether you’re really old enough to be reading this blog. In the movie “Charley’s Aunt,” what actor famously said, “I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil, where the ______ [fill in the blank] come from”?

And, by the way, should you decide to go to Bolivia, let me know, because I’ve got a helluva good itinerary (and travel agent) for you.

Return and Reflections

February 5

Up very early to go on a last dawn patrol walk at 6:15. Lovely cool morning with a beautiful sky, so a good opportunity for some final photos, some of which are below, including some more “puddle shots.”







Breakfast at the hotel and met with our group in the lobby. Jennifer had me read the fake blog I’d written, giving a very irreverent view of what we’d seen and poking fun at many members of our group. It was very well received and everyone wanted copies, which I promised to send to them when I get back home.

Van to the airport, where we cleared all hurdles two and a half hours before flight time. Sat with four members of our group, and passed the time over coffee and conversation. Now aboard our short flight to Miami, where we will spend the evening in Ft. Lauderdale with our close friends, Len and Elyse.

Reflections on the trip. Overall, terrific. Love Havana, excellent planning and very helpful support from staff and our leader, and great accommodations. Memorable moments were the first dance performance, showing of Raul’s photos, meeting with with Claudia Corrales, viewing of Luis Ernest Donas’ 13-minute short film “Oslo”, the Flamenco dance performance by Irene Rodriguez and final evening slide show. Just walking the streets of Havana was a great treat.

This trip was considerably different from my earlier one. First, having Carol with me made it infinitely more enjoyable. This trip was more focused on the subjects of art and music, whereas the first one was a general trip. The first trip included Trinidad as well as Havana, whereas this one was only in Havana. Our connection with the photographers on this trip, especially Eduardo, was much different and better than it was on the first trip, as was the connection to the Cuban photographic group that was our sponsor. I had anticipated that the “art “would include more of media other than photography, i.e. painting, sculpture, etc. I also thought there would be more pure music involved, rather than music with dance. That said, the events that were planned were really excellent and provided opportunities that we would not otherwise have had.

It helped greatly that our group got along very well, and was small. Though we were nine, we frequently were broken into two groups, and two of the nine members often did not participate. My impression was that the dance group of eleven pretty-much operated as one group, and I think this would have made the trip much less enjoyable for us.

This trip was not a “workshop,” so there was not formal instruction. Nonetheless, I think I learned a fair amount from talking to and observing others on the trip, from viewing images of other photographers and simply from shooting and thinking about what I was doing and, too often, failing to do. I know that I’d benefit from more formal workshops; virtually everyone else in the group had done many of them. I may do some of that in the future. Or not. I am enjoying the photography I’m doing and I’m just not sure that I want to complicate things by actually learning something.

Having completed the travel part of the trip, I now have a month or more of working on my photos to look forward to. And I do look forward to that. In a real sense, I don’t know what I have in the photos I’ve taken. The photos in the blog are a random selection of some that I picked out from viewing tiny thumbnails and, other than a bit of cropping I was able to do have not gone through the post-production phase, which helps greatly (I hope) to improve the images.

Thank all of you who took the time to email me or to write comments on the blog. I hope you enjoyed Cuba, and that you’ll decide to tag along with Carol and me when we visit Brazil in late April/early May.

Hasta luego.

Body Builders, Brides in Pink Cadillacs and a Farewell Show

Feb 4

Our last day in Cuba, as tomorrow is just a travel day.

After breakfast, we set out in our van for a beach with an old beach house and changing rooms. Carol and I were unenthusiastic about this outing and almost skipped it, except that we thought we should go because a lot of work had been put into setting it up. The workshop has arranged for three body-building guys to come and model for us. This type of photography is not really my thing, as I prefer to shoot candid street scenes. Or the kids playing handball against a green wall near the beach. Still, it’s somewhat interesting, and from working with Pedro, one of our Cuban photographers, I do get some ideas for posing that may be helpful, should I do this type of work again. Carol was content to find a shady area and read the book she’d brought along for that purpose.






After the ride back to the hotel, Carol and I have the concierge book a lunch reservation for us at Doña Eutimia, which Nadina raved about. We walked the 15 or so minutes to the Cathedral Plaza and located the restaurant in an alley off of the plaza. Food was great, the best we’ve had. Turned about it was the two of us and a group of 33 Americans, there on tour. Not the ideal mix, but the group was not boisterous, and the food was clearly worth it.

Walked back to the hotel and, while Carol napped, I went down to the lobby and sat with the instructor of the dance group, Elizabeth, who was explaining and showing some of her incredible photos, and the unique way she prints them. Very interesting.

I got Carol, and we went walking with Eduardo and Nadina. We encountered a neat wedding procession, the bride sitting on the back ledge of a bright pink 50s Cadillac.



We continued on to a neighborhood, where we saw more street scenes that we’ve found to be so engaging in Havana. Eduardo took us up to the roof of a former hotel that had been converted to many apartments. Eduardo engaged the residents in easy conversation and we were welcome. From the roof, we could see the capital and surrounding crumbling buildings. We photographed some children and gave them candy and pens we’d brought. A light drizzle started and we walked back to the hotel using as many overhangs as possible for cover.









Back at the hotel, we showered and dressed for our final show and dinner. We walked to the National Museum of International Art and went upstairs for cocktails with both groups and guests invited by the Workshop. Carol and I were able to visit Luis Ernesto Donas, the film maker whose work we admired so much, and we exchanged contact information with him. We assembled in an attractive meeting space, where we had a short dance presentation by two young women. There followed a slide show that Dustin and Jennifer had out together of candid shots of our group during the week. After that, we viewed two slide shows of eight images from each member of our group. (This was my first show at The National Museum of Art in Cuba.) It was interesting to see everyone’s work, some of which was quite excellent. I was comfortable that my images were certainly of comparable quality to those of others in the group. Pedro, one of the Cuban photographers, told me that he liked my work and particularly like an image of a woman reflected in a puddle, which he said he would have liked to have taken.

We proceeded to a large group dinner on the roof of the Ambos Mundos hotel, where I had stayed last April. The dinner was fair, at best, and the place so noisy that you could barely hear to speak to the person next to you, who, for me, was Joanne, a person from the dance group, who lives in OklahomaCity and who we’d met early on the trip and liked very much. Afterwards, Tony was going to take us to a club he knew, but it was not having music last night, so we continued back to the hotel and had a drink on the roof with half a dozen people, including a lady who didn’t shut up the whole time we were up there.

Young Photographers and Film Makers

February 3

After breakfast at the hotel and a short meeting, our group, down to six because three have opted to go off on their own today, piles into the van for a drive to Cojinar, a small village outside Havana, where Earnest Hemingway lived, boated, drank and wrote. A bar we stop in has many photos of him. We wander around town for half an hour, observing and taking some photos.




At 10:15, we meet and go to the home of a famous Cuban photographer, Raul Corrales. Corrales was a photographer of the revolution, and a very close friend of another famous revolution photographer, Korda, whose daughter I visited with on my April trip to Cuba. It was interesting to hear about Korda from Corrales’ granddaughter, Claudia Corrales, who was our hostess. She said that Korda was like an uncle to her, and was very different from her grandfather, the latter being quiet and serious, while Korda was out-going and fun.


Claudia told us about her famous grandfather, who managed to push his way into photography, starting as one who cleaned up a studio. More interesting, though, was Claudia’s discussion of her own evolution as a photographer. Now 26, beautiful and charming, she originally stayed away from photography, not wanting to follow in the footsteps of her famous grandfather or her less famous (and less accomplished) father. About three years ago she drifted into photography and now is developing her own distinctive voice, producing quite engaging work, originally in black and white, but now moving into color. She spoke of the difficulties of being compared to her grandfather, but our sense is that she is well on her way to finding her own personal style. The time we spent with her was quite delightful.

After that, we had another hour to wander around town. The “beach” area was a pile of litter, but we found some interesting people to photograph, including two men in a butcher shop with a pig’s head hanging in front of them. We bought a small gift for Jasper, which may or may not make it back in one piece, but seemed worth a try, given its modest price.
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The group met and lunched at a good-enough restaurant, called Las Brisas, then climbed back in the van to head back to Havana. We were told that we were going to see a short, 13-minute film that a young filmmaker had made. We were not excited at the prospect, but were dazzled by the short film, called Oslo, about an elderly, senile woman, who wanted to see snow. The filmmaker, Luis Ernesto Donas, was present and incredibly warm and humble in response to our questions. He said that he’d been inspired by the work of the painter Andrew Wyeth, and the film definitely had the feel of Wyeth’s work. Several of us said that the movie was reminiscent of Amour, a fabulous French film. He said that his work had been compared to Amour, though Oslo actually had been made before Amour. The original music complemented the film beautifully. Luis been given 250 CUCs to make the film as a graduate student and had gotten the Norwegian Embassy to contribute another 500 in honor of the 100th anniversary of reaching the South Pole by Admunsen, a Dane. Afterwards, I told Jennifer (in private) that I’d like to help with a contribution towards the making of his next film, which he had discussed with us. What a treat.

We walked around town, getting back to the hotel around 3:30. Carol had scheduled a massage for the afternoon, and I wasted an incredible and frustrating amount of time trying to get images together for the final evening tomorrow.

Carol and I went to dinner at La Guarida, which Jennifer had recommended to us. Located on the third floor of an old apartment building, it’s an elegant spot with excellent food; a very fine choice for dinner. (I had actually eaten lunch there with our group in April.)




We returned to the hotel, and an earlier night than the past two. A very good day, with a nice change of pace from the one we’d kept in Havana.

A Day with Eduardo

February 2

Breakfast buffet with Marjorie. Today is our “day off”. We’ve been given a host of possibilities, and the guides are at our disposal. Carol and I manage to nab Eduardo for ourselves, and we spend a delightful morning wandering the streets of Old Havana, Havana Vieja, with him, with no goal other than to experience the somewhat sleepy Sunday street scene.

Eduardo is 36 years old, and spends about half the year guiding for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, and the rest of the year photographing for himself. We and his twin brother show and sell their work together. Eduardo has a wonderful warm, friendly and easy manner, and Carol and I are ready to adopt him. We wander into the beautiful old and restored Raquel Hotel, which Eduardo had not known before. Mtoe hotel has only 26 rooms, all of which are named for Biblical characters and have mezzuzot outside each room. There is magnificent stained glass and grill work all around the hotel. We go up to the roof in the vintage elevator with a handsome grate door.

We stop whenever the spirit moves us, chat with people on the street, photograph children and give them pens and candy that we’ve brought along for that purpose. We also do to a dance studio where Eduardo and his brother, Orlando, show their photographs. After a couple hours, Eduardo drops us at the National Art Museum, where Carol and I want to see the contemporary Cuban art. We spend a bit of time looking around, but are too tired from the walking to do it justice. Sandwich lunch at the museum, then walk back to the hotel and relax.
















At 2PM, we meet Eduardo and his brother. We spend some time looking through his various portfolios on an iPad. He’s very good, and much of the work, particularly the black and white photos, is excellent. We very happily buy a black and white piece (for about $350) that Carol and I both like, and which will both serve as a remembrance of the trip, and also support Eduardo and his family. If you want to check out Eduardo and Armando’s website, here it is

Carol was going together a massage, but there was a miscommunication on time, so we just hung out at the hotel, until 4:30, when we took a taxi to the Teatro Mella in the Vedado area. We met Eduardo there and got excellent tickets for the flamenco performance. Eduardo sat elsewhere and, as a local, paid about 1/20 of the price, but since our tickets were $11 each, we did not mind. Four others from our group were there, independently. The performance was extraordinary and memorable; incredible dancing with great passion and considerable variety in the numbers. The female star, Irene Rodriguez, was particularly outstanding. I have no photographs, because taking pictures was prohibited.

We met Eduardo afterwards, and he helped to get us into a cab, headed towards Vistamar, a paladar (restaurant) that Eduardo and the concierge at our hotel had recommended, independently in Miramar. They were right. We had an excellent dinner outside by the sea, and were entertained by a guitarist/singer who was very pleasant to listen to. We bought one of his CDs.

After dinner, we took a taxi to the Jazz Cafe, where we arrived 45 minutes before the music began. I liked the saxophonist and keyboard players in the first group we heard, but Carol did not like the group. Neither of us cared particularly for the long opening number of the second group, so we left in time to retire at midnight at the hotel.




So, to recap, our day off started with breakfast at 8 AM, continued with a great 2-hour walk with Eduardo in Havana Vieja, included a stop to view contemporary Cuban art at a museum, a meeting with Eduardo and his brother at which we purchased a photograph, an incredible flamenco dance concert, a lovely dinner by the sea with guitar music and jazz music until our return to the hotel around midnight. A very relaxing day off. And I don’t really give a damn who won the Super Bowl, anyway.

More Street Walking and Dancing

February 1

Celebrated the advent of February by not getting up early for a 6:15 Dawn Patrol, instead starting the day with buffet breakfast and then meeting with the group at 8:45 to discuss the day.

We set off on foot into Cenral Havana, photographing street scenes as we walked along, poking into a flower shop here, a place where monthly allotments of eggs were dispersed and generally keeping our eyes open for what was around us. I’m including a number of them here, unsure of whether readers may find them as engaging as we did. I find the ability to remain in the moment here very liberating and quite different from back home, where my mind often races ahead of me. We are completely free to move about anywhere, there no strong police or military presence, and people are very friendly. We do get occasional requests for money, but not excessively so, and not in any way that feels the least bit aggressive.
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Our destination was an open park, a cement park, where we were to have heard a concert, but that didn’t happen, or not any time close to when it was supposed to happen, so Carol and I wandered back to a theater we’d passed earlier, where we’d encountered some very cute little girls, who were to dance at the theater around 11. We saw them dance various different numbers, interspersed with clown acts that delighted the crowd even more than the dancing. Here are photos of the girls outside the theater and as seen from a distance in costume.




We meandered back to the hotel after the performance and had a pleasant lunch on the roof, then worked on photos and the blog before our 2:30 meeting. We opted to skip the afternoon activities, take a walk down The Prado ( where we saw children in art classes) to the Malecon (young men diving into the ocean), and then wander back to the hotel, where we are to hook up with Randy Kaye, form Toronto, and his wife, Judy, who are in Cuba with a Canadian photography group. I met Randy on my trip to Guizhou, China in Nov, 2012, and we have stayed in touch. He’s part of the small group of four photographers I’ve put together, who share and comment on one another’s photos four times a year.
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Carol and I returned to the hotel before 4PM, relaxed and met Randy and Judy on the rooftop of the new portion of the Parque Central, where they are staying, at 5:30. There’s a set-up for dinner on that roof, though, so we switch to the rooftop of the older building of the Parque Central, where we are staying. We spend a lovely hour and a quarter chatting with Randy and Judy on the scenic rooftop, for me, renewing acquaintances with Randy and meeting Judy and, for Carol, meeting them both. They have their final group dinner tonight and take off from the hotel at 4AM tomorrow.

We shower and relax in our room before going down to the lobby to meet our group at 8:30. All but one in the group have decided to splurge to go to the famous Tropicana night club (at a cost of over $100 per person). Jennifer has arranged for taxis (old American cars) to take us there and back. As I was there in April, I am not surprised at the stunning and continuos 2-hour dance and music show, with brilliant costumes and headdresses, that ends around midnight. The Tropicana is outdoors and the performances take place on multiple levels all around the huge open area. It is, to say the least, quite a spectacle. Back to the hotel and to bed by 1AM.<









Art School, More Dancing and Prayer

January 31.

Up at the crack of dawn again coffee in the lobby at 6AM, then another Dawn Patrol. Spent most of the time working on two techniques; shooting reflections of buildings and people in puddles and panning shots of cars (moving the camera to create a blurred effect). Got a few reflections that I was pretty happy with, but didn’t do so well with the panning. Need more practice on both, but they were fun to work with. I’m including a lot of them for you to see.










Another big buffet breakfast at the hotel, then transported in rather cramped van to the campus of a highly selective arts school, called ISA, Institute for Superior Artists, designed by a famous Cuban architect in the early sixties on the grounds of the former, exclusive Havana Country Club. Of the more than 500 students who apply from around the country, sixty are invited to come for two weeks to produce art, and 15 of those sixty are selected. We were shown around by the former dean and now head of photography, who showed us lithography, painting, ceramics and photography and introduced us to several professors. There are more than eighty faculty members for 105 students, most of them not permanent faculty, but chosen to meet the needs and interests of specific students. We saw some very interesting work. Apparently, it is very rare for visitors to be allowed to see the school in the way that we did.



After busing back to the hotel, Tony, Jodi, Joelle, Bernie, Carol and I had lunch at a nearby Italian, pizza restaurant. Looking out the window at the passing cars we feel like extras in a 1950s movie. Back at the hotel, worked on downloading photos and writing the blog again, then went down to meet with Tony and review some of the photos I’ve taken on the trip. After busing back to the hotel, Tony, Jodi, Joelle, Bernie, Carol and I had lunch at a nearby Italian, pizza restaurant. Looking out the window at the passing cars we feel like extras in a 1950s movie. Back at the hotel, worked on downloading photos and writing the blog again, then went down to meet with Tony and review some of the photos I’ve taken on the trip. He was quite complimentary about many of them, particularly some of the dance shot from yesterday and this morning’s early puddle shots, and, I think there are a fair number of reasonable photos that I can work with when I get back to Longboat Ket.

We set out to walk four or five blocks to the dance center, which houses a number of diverse Havana companies. It was quite hot, though considerably less humid than yesterday, and we had to climb four or five flights to get to the dance studio. We watched younger dancers than yesterday, in much smaller quarters, with contrasty light, so shooting was far more difficult than yesterday. Still I think there are at least a few shots, some posted and others focused on fast motion that may be worthwhile.






After about an hour, Carol and I headed back to the hotel to shower, relax a bit and work on photos for about an hour. We met Marjorie in the hotel lobby and were taken in an old Pontiac that Jennifer had arranged for us, to Beth Shalom conservative synagogue in the Vedado area of Cuba. At the synagogue were half dozen or more Israelis, a few other Americans and a good crowd of Cubans. The service was spirited and interesting/fun. I could follow quite well in Hebrew, and Carol, Marjorie and I knew some of the prayers and melodies. Laine, who met us at the synagogue, stayed for about 45 minutes. I could also understand some of the Spanish translations to prayers rather well. Carol and I were especially glad to be there to be able to say Kaddish for Shirley Gould, a 96-year old friend and JRC congregant who died just after we left for Cuba. It was also good to feel the connection to Judaism created by being a part of the service. Both Laine and Marjorie had brought gifts to contribute to congregants. Carol and I brought a challah cover that we’d bought in Ghana and gave that to the service leader for the congregation. We were pleased to see that they used it to cover the challah in the kiddush held after the service.




We were picked up by the driver who took us to the synagogue and taken to the very attractive Saratoga Hotel, about four blocks from our hotel, where a photo salon was being held. We saw some very good work from photographers we’d seen earlier in the week, including work by our guide, Eduardo and his twin brother, but did not buy anything (yet). Several members of our group did make purchases, however.

After the salon, Jennifer led us to a restaurant only a few blocks from our hotel, where we had a pleasant dinner and conversation with Marjorie and Bernie, who is from Cambridge. Walked back to the hotel and retired before midnight.

Raul and Rhythm

January 30

Down in the lobby by 6AM for coffee, before setting out on Dawn Patrol, led by Kip and Jennifer, along with five members of our two groups. Walk down the Prado, a wide boulevard with a center strip that teems with people during the day, but is empty in the early morning, before sunrise. Take some photos in very low light, then proceed down the Prado to the Malecon, the sea wall that abuts the ocean. Take more photos as the light grows, and Kip lends me his tripod for awhile. After a while, it begins to drizzle, so I head back with Kip to our hotel. Others have gone their separate ways. Back before 7:30, and Carol, who was not feeling well last night, and I go down to the huge buffet breakfast.

Meet to go out for about a 2-hour walk and street shoot. Our group of nine is divided into groups of four and five. Our group of five (Marjorie, Nadina, Bernie and us) gets Eduardo and Jennifer to show us around, and we’re happy with that division. Very interesting and enjoyable. Interesting faces and places. It’s a bit hard to describe exactly why it’s so much fun, but you get a real slice of the life on the street. People are generally extremely friendly and willing to be photographed. We are invited in to the tiny apartment of an older man, who is taking care of a small neighbor girl. He’s very kind and gentle, and happy to show us his apartment, asking only that we send him photos of him and the little girl. Our Cuban photographer guide, Eduardo, who both Carol and I really like, says that he will do this.









At 11, we meet at the office of Fototeca de Cuba, our host photographic group, and are treated to a wonderful show of work by Raul Canibano, who is described as the best photographer in Cuba. Seeing his work, we believe that. He speaks no English, but another Cuban photographer, Pedro, translates, but is difficult to understand. No matter, the work stands on it’s own.

We walk to a restaurant at the International Museum of Art, where Jenefier has reserved a number of tables for our group. Carol and I sit with Jennifer and Tony, and have a great luncheon discussion about travel and photography.

Back to the hotel very briefly, where I download some of the morning photos, before meeting at 2:45 to set out for the afternoon. First stop is a fabulous professional dance troup, rehearsing in what appears to be the shell of a huge old building. Live, loud, rhythmic music accompanies the very energetic, athletic dancers. I think I lost five pounds in sweat just watching the dancers, who performed virtually non-stop for about an hour. It was a photographers paradise, as we all moved around and snapped continuously. I’m sure I took at least 200-300 photos, two or three of which I hope will prove salvageable. I think the person in the group who got the best shots almost certainly was Carol, who was shooting video.

After the dancing, Carol headed back to the hotel, as she is still not feeling that well. The rest of us walked around, doing more street shooting and, at one point, went up to an apartment in which we took some photos. I headed back to the hotel, walking along the Prado, arriving at about 5:15, rather tired and sweaty. While I tend to think that the best part of these trips is walking the streets, I can’t deny that both Raul’s photos this morning and the dance rehearsal were special treats that I would not want to have missed.

This may be a bit of overkill on the photos, but I want you to get a feel for the dance we saw. And how much could a few more street scenes hurt?














Carol and I went out for a good Cuban meal at a building a block from the hotel that has three restaurants, one on each floor. Havana Gourmet, on the second floor, was attractive, quiet and reasonably priced. My lobster creole was quite good, as was Carol’s pineapple chicken. Though we were tempted to go out for Cuban jazz, we’d have had to wait an hour and a half until the place opened, so we opted instead to retire early. A very good full first real day in Cuba.

Parked at the Parque Central

January 29

Meet in hotel lobby at 7:30 for the five-minute bus ride to the airport to catch our 11 AM American Airlines-run ABC charter flight. The Workshop does not believe in cutting things too close. Rather slow lines, but nothing extraordinary on the U.S. side. Starting to talk to and get to know others from both our group and the dancing group, as we hang out together in the hotel and airport.

Standing In line at the Miami airport, I receive an email from somebody named Rodrigo from Bahia in Brazil to whom I’d written a couple of days ago at the suggestion of our Nigerian doctor friends, the Olopades. He’s kindly offered to show us around and invited us to dinner with him and his wife, when we go to Bahia in April. I love the ability to make connections in this way and the personal and unique experiences we’re able to have because of these connections. Carol and I have chosen to go to Bahia because of the strong African cultural influence there, particularly the Yoruban culture to which we were introduced in Nigeria last August by the Olopades (who are themselves Yoruban).

The short, 52-minute flight to Havana is followed by an hour plus of standing in various lines at the airport. This is all part of the small price one pays for travel here. The saying, our guide tells us, is, “it’s Cuba, it’s complicated.”

We are met at the airport by the Workshop team, headed by Kip Brundage, who has been to Cuba many times and heads up operations for the Workshop here. Dustin, who was with us last April, and Jennifer are also there. We’re led out to the parking lot, where we are loaded onto two air conditioned buses by group. Our group, being the smaller of the two, has the smaller bus, which just barely accommodates all of us. It’s adequate for our needs today, but would not work for a longer trip.

We ride about 20 minutes to the fashionable Miramar section, where we have a good, traditional Cuban meal of chicken, rice, black beans and plantains, along, importantly, with a cold Bucanero beer. We’re at three tables and Kip, at ours, expounds on how badly the US has bungled relations over the past 55 years. He sees no easy solution. It requires some visionary leadership to get all sides to see beyond their past to their present interests. A quartet entertained us with some Cuban music over lunch.



After lunch, we re-board the bus for a 15-minute ride to the Parque Central, clearly the place to be. The group had not gotten reservations here on my last trip, but I'd see the hotel and knew that we'd like it. We were given our room keys, changed our money, bought cards to access the internet, on sale for only 4.5 CUCs ($4.50) per hour, about half their regular price, so I splurged and bought four, not wanting to short change any of you in my blogging.

The money change was more complicated than it should have been. We'd been told that we should bring Canadian, rather than US dollars, because there was a better exchange rate. Assigned the task of getting the Canadian dollars, Carol went to the bank in Chucago and got British Pounds, instead. Not the most brilliant move, but not a disaster, as I was able to exchange the Pounds for CUCs and remain willfully and blissfully ignorant of how we did on the exchange rate.

Carol and I went up to our junior suite, overlooking the national plaza to relax and unpack. I had a good time shooting down towards the plaza and the street scenes from our balcony, which affords some interesting angles.
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Afterwards, we met in the lobby and walked over to the National Museum of Art, where first we had cocktails and then a slide show of photos by Cuban photographers, the quality of which differed significantly. Two were quite good, and two only fair. We also saw photos by Tony, our instructor, and by Elizabeth, the instructor for the dance group. Both were good, but I particularly liked Elizabeth’s rather abstract work. After the show, which lasted a bit too long, people went separate ways. Carol and I wound up having a very nice dinner and conversation on the roof of our hotel with two people from the dance group, Jo Ann from Oklahoma City, and Kimber, from Santa Fe. It’s now 10 PM and, as soon as I finish this blog, we’ll retire, as I’m planning on going on the “Dawn Patrol” at 6:15 AM, when the trip begins, in earnest.

Almost There

January 28.

Attended a very good morning lecture in Sarasota called, “The Reform that Wasn’t” about Wall Street, given by William Cohan, who has written three books on the excesses of the investment banking world. This was part of a series of lectures, most of which are on foreign policy issues, that I am signed up for on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. The lectures draw approximately 400 people. One of the things I really like about Sarasota is that it is very far from being an intellectual or cultural wasteland. Cohan does not have an uplifting message. Afterwards, I drove down to Miami, approximately four hours, and met Carol, who was flying in from Chicago, at the hotel. We had an earlyish dinner at our airport hotel with our good friends from college, Phil and Leslie Paul, who live in Miami.

At 8 PM, we attended the mandatory meeting of our group in the hotel. The trip we are going on is being run by the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, the same outfit that I traveled to Cuba with last year. The workshop is running a whole slew of trips to Cuba this winter and spring. The maximum number of participants is fourteen, but, happily, there are only nine in our group. The meeting included another group that is going at the same time. I’m hoping that there will be very few joint gatherings of the two groups, because that would make the group too large.

Our trip is being led by a professional photographer named Tony Bonanno. The reason we chose this trip was in part because of the subject matter – art and music in Cuba – and in part because the photographer with whom I had traveled to China and Cuba, Nevada Weir, recommended Tony when I asked her who would be a good person to travel with. In order for US citizens to travel legally to Cuba, they must get prior permission and travel in a group for some cultural purpose. Cuba is becoming an increasingly hot destination, so many different groups are running trips down there on pretty-much any topic you can imagine. When I checked into the hotel, there was a sign on the front desk telling participants in the Shalom Cuba trip where to meet.

Usually, I have good intentions of preparing for a trip, but most of the time fall (way) short of what I had hoped to do. This time, I thought I had really hit a new low, by not preparing at all, but I was wrong; it turns out that I did prepare. When I came down to Longboat in December, I decided to take Ken Burns’ series on Jazz with me. If you have not seen that series, get it, and watch. You are in for a real treat. You will need some time to do it, though. The series consists of ten DVDs, each of which runs approximately two hours. But the effort is well worth it. As he has proved again and again, Burns is a genius, and Jazz measures up to his best. Watching the series gave me a completely new appreciation for what’s involved in jazz, its history, it’s variety and the way it incorporates so many other musical forms. The series also is a rather sobering American history lesson. Whether directly or indirectly, I’m sure that having watched Jazz will enhance my enjoyment of the music we hear on this trip (and after). So, you see, with this blog you get more than just travel, whether you want that or not.

For those of you who may be miffed at having been subjected to several posts before I even hit Cuba, I have an explanation. For me, these pre-trip posts are a warm-up, almost part of the trip, in much the same way that I regard taking the El to be part of the Wrigley Field experience, or taking a boat ride out to the dive site to be part of the scuba diving experience. I guess I’d say that anticipation of the experience is part of the experience itself.

Tomorrow, though, we really are going to hit Cuba. I promise.

Cuba Before Cuba

January 27, 2014

Because there are so many wonderful places to see in the world, it is rather rare for Carol or me to return to a place we’ve been before, no matter how much we enjoyed it. Why, then, am I returning to Cuba only nine months after having been there?

Three reasons, really. First is that Carol was not with me last April and May. I really missed having her there and wished that she had been able to see what I had. When another opportunity arose, I was primed to take it.

Second, Cuba is a wonderful destination. It is close, it is easy to get to, in the same time zone and exotic. And because it is close and easy to get to, one can travel there and not devote an enormous amount of time to the trip. This is a very unusual combination, and makes it a terrific place to travel (or return) to. Though I would not have done another trip to Cuba this soon after my first, unless Carol was coming, I am very happy to be going back with her.

Third, the focus of this trip is on art and music in Cuba. Since both of those areas are of great interest to Carol and me, this seemed like a particularly attractive trip.

We have not yet left home, but already have had one of those amazing coincidental experiences that seem to occur when you travel. For several months in Chicago, I had been working with a personal trainer, so when I went down to Longboat Key to the condo I have rented for the winter, I decided that I should look for a trainer there. I went into the fitness center near my apartment and talked to the manager, who asked me whether I wanted to work with a man or a woman. I told him it didn’t make any difference to me, that I had been working with a man in Evanston. He said, “I think I’ll have you work with Patty.”

In my first session with Patty, we talked about a range of things including the fact that Carol and I were about to go to Cuba. She said, “oh, my husband is Cuban, he immigrated sometime ago.” It turns out that Jorge wound up going to Harvard Business School, had a successful business career and he and Patty had now settled on Longboat Key. I told Patty that Carol and I were going on an art and music trip and she said, “oh, Jorge has a huge Cuban art collection. You and Carol will come over for dinner, Jorge will cook a Cuban meal and I will clean up.”

We had a delightful dinner with Patty and Jorge. Jorge in fact has a terrific Cuban art collection, which he was very happy to show us and talk about. I asked him what was going to occupy his time now that he was retired. He said that his principal project was to write a book on the Cuban artists who he had collected. He is very far along on the book and showed it to us on his iPad. It looks as if not only did Carol and I have a lovely evening, but we have made two new friends in Patty and Jorge, who we’ve invited to come to dinner at our condo when Carol returns to Longboat Key in March.

Jodi and Jasper had been visiting me on Longboat Key, but left yesterday. Things sure do seem quiet when Jasper leaves. Under the guise of trying out my ability to attach photographs to the blog, here’s one of Jasper in Sarasota.


Spent some time packing today, which has never been a big deal to me. You just throw some things (normally too many things) into a suitcase and zip it up. Also spent a bit of time re-reading my blog from last April/May’s Cuba trip, which brought back everything vividly for me, and increased my anticipation for this venture. I’m sure there will be a few repeats from the last trip, but I don’t really mind that. Often when you see something more than once, you come away with a deeper, different or richer appreciation the second time. I’ll be interested to see whether Havana feels any different to me the second time around. Unlike on my earlier trip, we will only be in Havana, and not in Trinidad, as well. I think the greater focus has both advantages and disadvantages. We’ll see how it plays out.

Tomorrow the trip begins. Well, sort of. We meet our group in Miami.

Getting ready for Cuba

Okay, so I’m cheating. As some of you followers know, I traveled to Cuba last April/May. At that time, I published a map and some historical background on Cuba. I thought about just giving you a link to that post, but decided that there were enough new subscribers and people who would want to refresh their recollections to justify repeating it the way I originally wrote it. So here it is, unmodified. If you want to skip this and pick up with the next post, feel free. Otherwise, for starters, here’s a map.


Notice a few things. If you never knew where Gitmo, much in the news, was, now you do, Southeast tip, almost as far as you can get from Havana. Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, both much smaller than Cuba (which is the largest island in the West Indies, about the size of Pennsylvania) are tucked to the South. Although you can’t tell from this map, Cuba is 90 miles South of Florida. And, gee, Cuba has its own little group of islands, including Isla de la Juventud. Of Cuba’s 11 million people, 2.1 million live in Havana.

And now, friends, a bit of (quite biased) history, edited very slightly by me, courtesy of infoplease. I apologize for the low brow source, but it’s really very convenient.

Arawak (or Taino) Indians inhabiting Cuba when Columbus landed on the island in 1492 died from diseases brought by sailors and settlers. By 1511, Spaniards under Diego Velásquez had established settlements. Havana’s superb harbor made it a common transit point to and from Spain.

In the early 1800s, Cuba’s sugarcane industry boomed, requiring massive numbers of black slaves. A simmering independence movement turned into open warfare from 1867 to 1878. Slavery was abolished in 1886. In 1895, the poet José Marti led the struggle that finally ended Spanish rule, thanks largely to U.S. intervention in 1898 after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.

An 1899 treaty made Cuba an independent republic under U.S. protection. The U.S. occupation, which ended in 1902, suppressed yellow fever and brought large American investments. The 1901 Platt Amendment allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuba’s affairs, which it did four times from 1906 to 1920. Cuba terminated the amendment in 1934.

In 1933, a group of army officers, including army sergeant Fulgencio Batista, overthrew President Gerardo Machado. Batista became president in 1940, running a corrupt police state.

In 1956, Fidel Castro launched a revolution from his camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro’s brother Raul and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, an Argentine physician, were his top lieutenants. The U.S. ended military aid to Cuba in 1958, and on New Year’s Day 1959, Batista fled into exile and Castro took over the government.

The U.S. initially welcomed what looked like a democratic Cuba, but within a few months, Castro established military tribunals for political opponents and jailed hundreds. Castro disavowed Cuba’s 1952 military pact with the U.S., confiscated U.S. assets, and established Soviet-style collective farms. The U.S. broke relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, and Castro formalized his alliance with the Soviet Union. Thousands of Cubans fled the country.

In 1961, a U.S.-backed group of Cuban exiles invaded Cuba. Planned during the Eisenhower administration, the invasion was given the go-ahead by President John Kennedy, although he refused to give U.S. air support. The landing at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was a fiasco. The invaders did not receive popular Cuban support and were easily repulsed by the Cuban military.

A Soviet attempt to install medium-range missiles in Cuba—capable of striking targets in the United States with nuclear warheads—provoked a crisis in 1962. Denouncing the Soviets for “deliberate deception,” President Kennedy promised a U.S. blockade of Cuba to stop the missile delivery. Six days later, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missile sites dismantled and returned to the USSR in return for a U.S. pledge not to attack Cuba.

The U.S. established limited diplomatic ties with Cuba on Sept. 1, 1977, making it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the island. Contact with the more affluent Cuban Americans prompted a wave of discontent in Cuba, producing a flood of asylum seekers. In response, Castro opened the port of Mariel to a “freedom flotilla” of boats from the U.S., allowing 125,000 to flee to Miami. After the refugees arrived, it was discovered that their ranks were swelled with prisoners, mental patients, homosexuals, and others unwanted by the Cuban government.

Russian aid, which had long supported Cuba’s failing economy, ended when Communism collapsed in eastern Europe in 1990. Cuba’s foreign trade also plummeted, producing a severe economic crisis. In 1993, Castro permitted limited private enterprise, allowed Cubans to possess convertible currencies, and encouraged foreign investment in its tourist industry. In March 1996, the U.S. tightened its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act.

In early 2003, Castro sent nearly 80 dissidents to prison with long sentences, prompting an international condemnation of Cuba’s harsh supression of human rights.

The Bush administration again tightened its embargo in June 2004, allowing Cuban Americans to return to the island only once every three years (instead of every year) and restricting the amount of U.S. cash that can be spent there to $50 per day. In response, Cuba banned the use of dollars, which had been legal currency in the country for more than a decade.

In July 2006, Castro—hospitalized because of an illness—temporarily turned over power to his brother Raúl and in Feb. 2008, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro ended 49 years of power when he announced his retirement. Raúl succeeded his brother.

The U.S. Congress voted in March 2009 to repeal the long-standing restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Havana and sending money into the country. President Obama has signaled a willingness to establish warmer ties with Cuba, a subtle acknowledgement that isolation has not been effective in forcing the Castro regime from power.

On April 19, 2011, Cuba made the most significant change to its leadership in over 50 years, by appointing José Ramón Machado to fill the second-highest position in the Communist Party. It was the first time since the 1959 revolution that someone other than the Castro brothers has been named to the position.

In late 2011, buying and selling cars became legal, Cubans were allowed to go into business for themselves in a variety of approved jobs, from accounting to food vendors, real estate could be bought and sold for the first time since the days immediately following the revolution and the government pardoned more than 2,900 prisoners.

I will start with new material in the next post.

Revival, Arrival and Great Weavings

September 1-2

Final breakfast at the Four Villages, then a debrief of yesterday’s meetings with the chiefs and district officials and discussion of next steps. General agreement that meeting was very successful. Sola has already done a draft of an RFP to Alex Eduful regarding inspections and recommendations regarding existing wells.

Pack and load the cars to head for services at Dr. Annie’s Pentecostal church. On an earlier trip, Carol and I had attended another Pentecostal church with the Kipharts and Peter Eduful. Dr. Annie’s was much larger and more modern, highly amplified music blaring and two large screens flashing words. I got busted for taking pictures, though I’d cleared it with Dr. Annie, but not before I took a few.


For attendees, who are very moved by the words and music, the message is of a very personal savior, reflected in hymns with words such as:

Amazing love
How can it be
That Thou my Lord
Should die
For Me

Sung repeatedly at high decibels, led by a woman, with much hand waving and other movement among the congregants.

When the pastor takes over he referred to the events of this week and the court decision upholding the election. Some people stocked rice and food, some made plans to leave the country, he said, but peace had prevailed, not because the politicians brought peace, but because The Lord brought peace. Many amens and hallelujahs. His sermon involved a rather obscure passage of the Old Testament, book of Samuel, in which the crippled son of Jonathan was restored to his inheritance by King David. The pastor managed to construct some 45 minutes of preaching around this story. Not my cup of tea, but the congregation seemed to like it. Dr. Annie, her daughter, Saint Anne and Joe and Ida were clearly into the service, but as to the Chicago group, not so much.


We left for Accra at about noon and drove for almost five hours on roads that sometimes were very good, and other times not. Overall, the road is decidedly improved over what we encountered several years ago. We passed through many towns with their familiar assortment of foods and wares for sale. I got lessons from Sola on the operation of the pharmaceutical industry and the roles of CROs ( Contract Research Organizations) in that process. He and Dick have talked about forming a CRO for West Africa.

Arriving at the airport at 4:45, four hours early for our flight, we checked our luggage and walked to the Landings restaurant, not far from the airport. Service was extremely slow, but the food was quite good. We went there to meet a friend of Funmi (whose name, the Kipharts and I learned after two years, is actually pronounced,”Foomi”) who she had taught at the U of C and who was practicing at the largest hospital in Accra. Funmi’s friend arrived late, with her 10-year old daughter, so we could spend only a very short time with them.

Walked back to the airport, cleared immigration and went to the business class lounge for a while (the Kipharts and Olopades snuck me in). Flight to Frankfurt took off just a little late, and I’m doing my last post now, in steerage. I think I’ve concluded that the main reason to fly business class may not be the roomier, more comfortable seats, but the special, shorter lines for everything, and club access. When you travel with Funmi, though, you get into clubs anyway, so that advantage disappears. After a 3-hour layover in Frankfurt (again admitted to the business class club), we fly United to Chicago, arriving at 10:30 tomorrow morning. Wish I could have slept like these guys.



Now for a few reflections.

Overall, amazing. Best of four wonderful trips to Ghana, in large part because it included Nigeria, for the first time.

Nigeria. Going there with the Olopades was fantastic. On the one hand, we had the royal treatment of being escorted guests of the Governor of Ekiti State. On the other, we had the very personal experiences of meeting both Funmi and Sola’s mothers and seeing their homes. We met fascinating people, ranging from young professionals to friends of the Olopades to university professors to governmental officials. We saw market women celebrating and kings given SUVs. We made contact with people with whom the Kipharts and Olopades (with us as minor participants) probably will have continuing contact/projects. Barbara, from Root Capital, certainly falls into that category.

We began to get a sense of the power of Nigeria, as the largest country in Africa. It’s been said that if Africa is shaped like a gun, Nigeria is its trigger. And we saw, up close, the governor of Ekiti State, who has the potential to emerge as a national force in Nigeria. He uses his initials, JKF, which for slightly dyslexic old farts evokes memories of JFK. JKF even has an attractive, bright, fashionable wife in Bisi. This may be jumping the gun a bit, because Ekiti State, at 2.7 million people, is a very small part of Nigeria (but it is larger than the country of Botswana in population; had to sneak one last fact into this reflection). We emerge with a more realistic picture of the country as a whole than that portrayed in the US press. The violence in the North does not pervade the whole country. There are areas in which Muslims and Christians live together in peace, including in Lagos.

Ghana. Seemed odd going to Ghana and not being under the constant guidance of Peter Eduful. We all missed him. It was wonderful to see old friends–Joe, Ida and Daniel Kwarteng, Dr. Annie and Saint Anne, Alex Owasu, and the two chiefs we met with from Bonkwaso and Abesua. Witnessing the growth of the pineapple farms was very impressive, but I definitely missed going into villages the way we have on our prior trips. Because of the focus that the Olopades provide, the trip was more productive than prior trips, especially connecting with new partners at KNUST and KATH (most notably Dr. Daniel Ansong). It’s always a pleasure to meet new people, like Dr. Annie’s son, Robert, and Emily, the U of C med student who is doing a project with Dr. Annie, and to get unexpected surprises, like connecting with the Taylor family. For me, it was also a great pleasure to spend time with Peter’s oldest son, Alex, who I’d met only very briefly before.

I enjoy the photography I’m able to do on these trips and, from that standpoint, the trip was okay, but definitely not great. The more productive a trip and the faster the pace, the less opportunity for the kind of photography that I enjoy. Taking pictures at or after a meeting is, well, dull, but I do recognize the need to do some documentation of the trip. And, as photography was not at all the primary reason for the trip, in any case. I’ll be quite content with whatever limited number of decent photos may emerge.

We all come away from this annual trip enriched by the tremendous amount we learn, both substantively (most of which I’ve already forgotten) and about life (at least some of which I hope to retain). Funmi referred to her Chicago family and her Nigerian family on the trip. And we all certainly feel that we have a Ghanaian family. It’s this strong, palpable sense of family that makes these trips so special. The Kipharts, Olopades and Kanters just plain have a good time together.

Susie often talks about the Great Weaver, a reference to whatever force has made all of this happen and develop as it has over ten years, and brought everyone together. I have to admit, Susie, that I’ve felt that this was a bit corny. But I also have to admit that I’m now in serious danger of becoming a believer. When you think about, see and feel the remarkable set of circumstances and connections that has made all of this possible, it’s hard not to believe that there’s some force at work. Carol and I are incredibly grateful to be a small part of this beautiful tapestry.

Planning for the Future

August 31

Breakfast at the inn, and then a couple hours to talk about strategy, going forward, including development work for Global Health, the approach and the story to be told. A young woman, carrying her son and a large bowl of cauliflower, passes by, as we talk.


Drive over to The Golden Tulip for a lunch with 16 people, including, in addition to those mentioned on previous days, the chiefs of the remote villages of Abesua and Bonkwaso, who we’d visited on several prior trips. Dick has a special fondness for the Abesua chief and the chief of Bonkwaso and I have a special relationship, developed over our having seen each other for four years. He is referred to as Nana, and he calls me Nana II.


Also involved in the meeting were Gabriel Barima, the district chief executive from Moncraso, the district in which those villages were located and two officials from the water and sanitation department of that district.

The meeting over lunch lasted three hours, with communications with the chiefs translated (though they both speak and understand some English). The district officials spoke English quite well. There was a candid exchange of plans and needs on both sides, and many questions asked and answered. These chiefs and village officials seem to be very good prospective partners, because they all “get it”, and seem quite willing to contribute to the effort. Seems quite likely that we’ll work together, though exactly how will need to be worked out.


Talking after the meeting to Alex Owusu, the contractor and friend of Peter’s who we’ve been with each year, he asks about Carol and I explain that she had to go home after Nigeria. He asks me to “snap” a picture of him to show her, and tells me that he remembers the dance we did and does a few steps. He’s referring to the Israeli dance to “Mayim” (water) which we taught the villagers at the dedication of one of the wells Carol and I donated. He says he also has the cover (the challah cover) that we gave him, purchased at the Jewish community we visited two years ago. This is a very nice moment for me, symbolic of the real and continuing relationships we’ve formed in Ghana.

Back to the Four Villages, where Susie had invited a family to stop by, the parents of the husband of which Susie knew from church. We expected a short visit, but they wound up staying four and a half hours and being included in dinner. Kristin and Buck Taylor live in Montana, though Kristin grew up in New York and Buck in Chicago. They had brought their 10-year old daughter, Kendall, and 12-year old son, Ben, for a 3-month stay in Ghana. Also joining the Taylors was a 35-year old Ghanaian man named Kodua, who ran an NGO relating to health services.


Buck, a public health person, and Kristin, a lawyer interested in sustainable development, will volunteer here, and the kids will go to school. This is the third extended trip the family had taken, the others being to Ecuador and to some Southern states in the US. All of the adults told the kids that they were so fortunate to have this experience, and, though they miss their friends and soccer, Kendall and Ben seemed reasonably content (or, at least, resigned). I grabbed a seat near Kendall at dinner to chat her up.

Another large dinner served on the porch of The Four Villages, with about eighteen people, including the Taylor party. The Taylors had wanted to get together with Dr. Annie and Joe Kwarteng while they were in Ghana, so the dinner provided them an unexpected opportunity to meet Annie and Joe in person. Food was excellent and conversation good over dinner. We concluded the evening by going around the table with everyone giving comments on the trip that we unanimously agreed was fabulous. There is a warm, family feeling between the Chicago and Ghana groups, exuded in everybody’s comments. Funmi says that we need to get dates on the calendar for next year’s trip. As Dr. Annie leaves, she gives me a painting as a gift for Carol and Annie’s son, Robert, who is just starting a residency and who I’ve met for the first time on this trip, rolls it for me and goes down to the car to get a rubber band to secure it.

Meetings and More Meetings

August 30

A productive, but not a photogenic, day.

We set out early for the four-hour drive to Kumasi, passing through towns lined with roadside shops, many bearing religious names. Here are a few: Christ is the Almighty God Plumbing Works, God First Catering Service, Everlasting Glorious Furniture Store and Amazing Grace Super Market.



I am riding with Joe and Sola. We talk some about yesterday’s big court case announcement, involving the contest of the legality of the Ghanaian presidential election. There had been fears that the decision, eight months in the waiting, might provoke violence. The court upheld the validity of the election of Mr. Mahama, finding that any irregularities were not widespread, and would not have affected the outcome. Happily, the other side accepted the outcome of the election, and so there was no violence.

I learned about Sola’s decision to join Funmi in Global Health at the U of C. He had been a tenured professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he’d been on the faculty for nineteen years. While their kids were in school at home, Sola and Funmi had made a decision to remain in their positions, but now that the kids were older, Sola decided to leave his tenured position to become a Professor at the University of Chicago in order to join Funmi in developing the Global Health Initiative there. I talked with Sola about the difficulties of being mentored and advancing as the sole Black doctor at UIC, which paralleled what I knew about the advancement of minorities in large law firms. We compared notes about the process of our leaving secure positions to strike out elsewhere.

I am going to conflate two meetings, because the issues and results were similar. The Global Health Initiative has developed formal relations with some fifteen hospitals and universities in many countries around the world. (They have one with Ibadan, in Nigeria.) These relationships are formalized with a Memorandum of Understanding that sets a template for future projects, each of which must be agreed to in a separate written agreement. They had proposed signing MOUs with two related entities in Kumasi, KATH (Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital) and KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology). We met separately with doctors and administration people, and it’s clear that both MOUs will be signed in short order. Sola handled both meetings very skillfully. Several months ago the U of C had sent a team of three Global Health students, which combined with three students provided by KNUST, evaluating wells built by the Kipharts and it’s this work that led to the MOUs.


We drove to the Kumasi Maternity and Childhood Clinic to see Dr. Annie, who runs the clinic and who the Kipharts have supported for many years. Dr. Annie is an amazingly energetic, compassionate and engaging person, who is from Madagascar and received her medical training in the Ukraine.


At the clinic, we saw Emily, a first year medical student at the U of C, who was spending three weeks at the clinic on a project through the Global Health Initiative. Each time we return to the clinic, we see many improvements, but none have been more dramatic than the beautiful new lab, funded by a foundation in Spain called Grifols, which came about because of friendship and investor relationships between Dick and Grifols.

Drove to The Four Villages Inn, our home in Kumasi, where we were greeted by Chris, the proprietor. Chris’ Ghanaian wife, Charity, is in Canada, visiting their kids. The Kipharts, Olopades and I met with Alex Eduful, the eldest son of Peter Eduful, who died suddenly about a year ago. This was a tremendous blow, both personally and to the work the Kipharts are doing in Ghana, because Peter was the indispensable point person for all of that work. The meeting, to gauge Alex’s interest in aiding in continuing that work was delicate, because the whole approach to the work has changed now that it will be done through the Global Health Initiative. The Kipharts were very clear about the changes. The meeting went well, and Alex is to prepare a proposal for the Olopades, for analysis of the 78 wells the Kipharts have built in Ghana, based on what we discussed.

As the meeting ended, the rest of the fifteen people invited for a dinner with us on the porch of the inn began to arrive. Most of them are people I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog, so I won’t go into the list now. Dinner was quite excellent, and ended with another happy birthday song and cake for Dick, as today is his actual birthday. After the guests left, our “gang of five” debriefed the day and discussed follow up action.

Getting to the Root and Pineapples

August 29

Great breakfast with Kipharts, Olopades and Barbara Ghansah, who is in charge of operations for three West Africa countries, including Ghana, for Root Capital. Root was formed by Willy Foote, a young friend of the Kipharts, and has made $300 million in loans to people in Africa, South America, India and elsewhere. The loans are not micro loans, but are to sources who could not get a conventional loan and who produce a social good, whether through providing employment to people or otherwise. Much of Root’s work is in agriculture. Dick thinks Willy is fabulous, and talks about him all the time.

Barbara is a young, former banker, who clearly knows what she’s doing and is sensitive to the cultural issues that make doing business in countries challenging. She is definitely interested in/planning to go to Nigeria with Root, and is looking for the right connections. We were excited to tell her all about our experience, both in Ekiti, with the minister of agriculture, and at Idaban University, with the agriculture faculty members. Something good is going to come of this, though it may take a while. Very exciting meeting.

We drove to the pineapple farms that Dick and Joe own, with Joe and Daniel, and saw the fabulous development that’s been going on there.


Joe is very proud of what has been accomplished and is focused on reaching break even, which he thinks will be accomplished next year. Daniel is far more aggressive and wants to expand more quickly than Joe, utilizing more of the 2,500 or so acres they have under contract. Dick is inclined to be aggressive, too, but places great stock in Joe’s opinions.

We met with a couple groups of workers in different areas of the pineapple farm, each meeting starting with a prayer.


This was not a show for us. Joe is very religious and these prayers are done daily. The prayers are punctuated with “amens” and “hallelujahs”.


Joe introduces all of us, and gives the workers pep talks, telling them that they don’t have to ask for wage increases, “the farm will tell them” when to increase wages, as it becomes successful. Dick tells Joe (out of the workers’ earshot) that he thinks they should give employees a bonus at Christmas, based on the number of months they’ve worked. Apparently, both “the farm” and Dick are able to make those economic decisions. We watch the workers who are joyous, singing as they work. Again, this is not for our benefit; it’s how they do it every day.




We also drive to an area of the farm which has been planted with almost 100 acres of mangoes.

We go next to three villages to dedicate wells that have been donated in gratitude for the cooperation the chiefs have given Joe in the pineapple operation. There are short speeches (Joe has made it clear that we have very limited time), considerable greeting and hand shaking with chiefs, linguists and queen mothers, among others, and, finally, ribbon cutting to inaugurate the wells.



Cute kids hang around the area of the ceremonies.



Interestingly, the three villages seem to have their acts together to different degrees, from the first (least) to the third (most). Sola reported that the first chief tried to talk to him about moving to the U.S. Sola advised him to focus on improving things here in Ghana.

We drive to the school for the deaf, which we’ve had very moving visits to in the three prior years. Joe and, his wife, Ida, have been very active in the school, and the Kipharts have supported it financially. This time, school is not in session and we are stopping there only so that Dick and Susie can be interviewed for a video that’s being made to promote this and other schools that have school farms to teach kids agriculture.


After the interviews, we drive to the comfortable Elmina Beach Resort, at which we’ve stayed three times before, check in and relax (blog) for an hour and a half before dinner. Conversation at dinner, which includes Joe and Daniel for most of it, centered on strategy for various meetings we are having tomorrow. Funmi had to leave for a phone call, the Kwartengs left and, after a while, the Kipharts, Sola and I were walking out of the restaurant when we ran into Funmi, who said we had to return to the table, because she needed a consultation. We spent forty minutes discussing a difficult personnel issue at the U of C, settled on an approach for Funmi and finally all left the restaurant–for real. This trip is great, even when we’re talking about matters completely unrelated to the trip, speaking of which, we also had a discussion of the merits of (the consensus was very positive). (During dinner, Dick got an email from Willy Foote, who’d been in contact with Barbara, and expressed interest in our Nigeria experience.)

Wet Laundry and Global Health in Action

August 28

Awoke early and utilized something I learned earlier in the trip. When you see a bucket in the bath tub, you can use that for showering. Cuts down on the singing a bit, but certainly conserves water. Though HLF House (Healthy Life for All) is unlikely to be a target for a Four Seasons takeover, it works well for a night, saves hotel bills and is a great facility for the Global Health Initiative (GHI).

My two problems on awakening were lack of Internet connection and wet laundry, in the scheme of global health issues, those are not all that serious. The first has already been solved, courtesy of Christine, who is in her final year of medical school at the University of Chicago and doing a second stint in Nigeria through GHI. Her work is dealing with the economic impact of catastrophic illness as it relates to the economic barriers to providing good care. This is a perfect example of the interdisciplinary approach that the Olopades take to global health. The second problem requires figuring out what to do with wet laundry en route to Ghana later today. Another cultural disconnect was my assumption that when the staff at HLF said they’d do the wash, they’d then just throw it into the drier.

This day, or really half a day was packed with meetings/tours. I won’t give you details of them all because I didn’t fully understand all of it and couldn’t possibly remember it all, if I did. We started at the teaching hospital of Ibadan University, with which GHI partners. We saw the lab where DNA was gleaned, frozen and sent to GMI for compilation and analysis. The head of the lab explained the expensive new machinery and process.


The work is designed to identify genetic differences in various populations who have breast cancer and other diseases with a view to developing appropriate medication and interventions specific to those populations. Multiple disciplines are brought to bear on the process, including microbiology and pharmacology, and we are introduced to all of the people in the lab doing the work.

From there, we went into a larger room, where again we discussed the work being done by Ibadan and GHI. Among the more interesting discussion was that by an OB/GYN doctor, Dosu Ojengbede, who had been doing work in combatting high maternal death rates due to hemorrhaging because of the inability to stem the bleeding before help could be provided. This was a particular problem in remote rural areas, and acute in the northern, Muslim areas. Dosu hit on the brilliant strategy of educating the imams and, through them, reaching people who needed the help.

Dosu had a polyurethane wet suit designed and contracted with a Hong Kong company to manufacture them. They cost less than $200, but, because they can be reused, the cost per use was about $5. The suits, of which he brought an example, look like scuba diving wet suits, with modifications designed to push the blood of the birthing mother up into her body, rather than letting it drip out. Another very simple clear bag allows people to collect blood and through colored markings on the bag, so that people don’t need to be able to read or figure out numbers, shows when certain danger levels are reached. Dosu discussed other interventions being made, which I won’t go into. All of this is very exciting.

After this meeting, we returned briefly to the house to collect our luggage and, in my case, pack some still slightly damp, but now ironed, clothes. From there we rushed off in our van to the office of the Vice Chancellor, who had thrown last night’s party, arriving some twenty minutes late. The Vice Chancellor had assembled a team of about 8-10 deans and professors who focused on agricultural matters. A simple lunch was served while we talked. Included in the group was an American professor, who had married a Nigerian doctor and moved here forty years ago. She took a sociological approach to agriculture and had outspoken feminist views that she was not bashful about sharing and confronting the men around the room with.


These various meetings give us an appreciation for the strong relationship the Olopades have established with many people at Ibadan, the fascinating, interdisciplinary nature of their work and the esteem in which they are held by everyone there. It’s a unique opportunity to witness global health in action.

We discussed many aspects of the work the Ibadan professors are doing in farming, both crops and catfish. The Kipharts are very interested in agricultural issues, and knowledgable about them. I was able to raise a couple questions about catfish farming, because I’d represented an insurance company/client in their investment in a catfish farm in Florida some thirty-five (or more) years ago.


We rushed over for a quick tour of the catfish farm, and, afterwards, were presented with a bag of gifts by the Vice Chancellor as we entered the van to the airport. We sped off, led by a truck with siren blaring (we still have the truck, but, alas, have lost the armed guards. At one point, we had a team of nine looking after us, but were down to only six now.). We had a harrowing ride, weaving in and out of traffic and avoiding potholes, as we tailgated our escort. It felt a bit like being in a video game in which the object was to reach an airport, driving as fast as possible, while staying as close as possible to the vehicle in front of you and avoiding car and pothole obstacles popping up suddenly in your way. If you make it safely to the airport, you get to play again some other day.

We get to play again. Lagos airport is crowded and we endure the usual delays and indignities, but make it on time for our short, 45-minute flight to Accra. I’m the first of our group to make it through customs and collect luggage, so I go out to the lobby to see Joe Kwarteng and his son, Daniel. Warm greetings from both, including a big hug from Joe. We chat while waiting some time for the others to make it through. More warm greetings between the Kwartengs and the Kipharts and Olopades. These are nice moments, evincing a strong friendship and family feeling that exists between all of us.

Interesting extraneous fact: Sola used to play cricket on the Nigerian national cricket team.

A van from the Golden Tulip takes us new arrivals the less than ten minutes to our modern hotel, while Joe and Daniel, who drove in to greet us from Cape Coast meet us there in their car. A ridiculously long and confused check-in process resolves itself and we go to our rooms. Twenty-five minutes later, we meet the Kwartengs in the lobby and go down for quite a good buffet dinner. The Olopades are meeting people from the pharmaceutical company, Navaris. They introduce us to the Navaris people, but we eat separately.

The Kipharts, Kwartengs and I spend most of our dinner discussing the pineapple farm in which Joe is a partner of Dick’s, and which, Daniel, a business school graduate, is running with great enthusiasm. We also discuss the problem of how to get young people interested in the less-than-glamorous field of farming. After the Kwartengs leave to drive back to Cape Coast, the Kipharts and I discuss how amazing the Olopades are, and how privileged we all are to be able to take this kind of trip together.

Up to the room to shower and collapse.

SUVs for Kings and the Beginning of Man

August 27

Started with breakfast at the hotel with Funmi’s cousin, Ayo, who is a lawyer and one of twenty-six members of the Ekiti Assembly, which is akin to our House of Representatives. He seems very committed and in tune with the governor’s program. Ayo will be visiting the US next month and we hope to see him in Chicago.

En route to Ibadan, Funmi got a call that there was a meeting of kings that the governor wanted us to attend. We drove to a sports stadium, where a huge crowd had gathered for an event for the Council of Traditional Rulers, an attempt by the governor to reach the grass roots through the local kings. The stands were packed with kings and their wives in very festive dress.



Lining the field were some 100 new SUVs, which were to be gifts to the kings from the governor. Speeches were made, a popular comedian MCed and music was played at what turned out to be quite a spectacle.


We drove on to Okeigbo, where a farm house Sola’s father had built for him more than thirty years ago is located. The house is large and solid, and has mountains in the background. Sola has never lived there and has somebody take care of it for him. As we drove away from our short visit, Sola said, touchingly, that he felt his father’s presence in the house.


We stopped at Obafemi Owolow University, which the Global Health Initiative at the U of C partners with. As the doctors were on strike, there was nobody to see and, despite Funmi’s incredible presence all over the world, it took us half an hour to get into a bathroom. Comforting to know that there are some limits to her powers.

Driving on, we came upon the obelisk, called Opa Oranmiyan, in Ile Ife, where the first human is reputed to have existed, the obelisk being the staff of one of seven warrior sons. Our chief security aide, Moses, says that the staff, miraculously, has grown larger, but Sola appeared a mite skeptical about that report.


I transferred to a car with Carol (and, of course, a driver and guard) to ride about an hour to a spot on the highway where the van pulled over. I transferred to the van and we all said goodbye to Carol, who was driven on to Lagos for her flight back to Chicago. It was great having her and we’ll all miss her for the rest of the trip, especially me.

In Ibadan, we drove to the house that the Global Health Initiative uses as its headquarters in Nigeria. There, Sola met with a team of about a dozen students in various disciplines, who were doing research on the impact of distributing small metal ethanol-burning stoves to be used in cooking in lieu of burning wood inside, which creates horrendous medical problems, and some 4 million preventable deaths annually due to indoor pollution.


Later, we saw the compact stoves, which can be bought for as little as $20, and Sola thinks may cost even less in the future. The students seem motivated and energetic, and Sola praised their work.

Next we drove to the home of the Vice Chancellor (President) of Ibadan University, a very prestigious school that claims the Olopades as two of its distinguished graduates. While we expected only a few people would be attending, in fact it was a lavish affair with fifty people who constituted deans and elite professors at the university, with live music during dinner. The Vice Chancellor was unstinting in his praise of the Olopades and the Kipharts. Conversation over dinner was very interesting, and both Dick and Susie gave brief remarks after dinner. Clearly, the university is hoping for projects with the Kipharts in the future.


Back to HLF House to blog and sleep.

Market Women, Ag Business and Knowledge

August 26

Breakfast at the hotel, then waited outside for our escorts, who were late. Struck up a conversation with a woman dressed in a stunning native dress. Turned out that she was a doctor, had a practice in Connecticut and was developing one in Ekiti, and knew that her husband was a classmate of Funmi’s, thus confirming once again that everyone knows Funmi. (He was also a classmate of Sola’s, but did not know him. Sola explained that he was a partyer and cricket player, so did not know studious types, but that Funmi bridged the gap between the two groups. Sola also told us, later in the day, that as a young man, he’d traded his car for a motor bike. One would not predict that Sola was a wild and crazy party guy, knowing him today, but I guess you never know, do you? We run into our hotel doctor/friend again at the market outreach event later in the morning.

Our car came and drove us to the governor’s house, where we met with Debo, the minister for trade and innovation, and a couple other ministers for long discussions on education, teenage pregnancy and a few other topics. To be honest, I’m a bit hazy on the discussions, since I was busy finishing and posting yesterday’s blog. We, the Kipharts and the Olopades had taken Debo and his wife to dinner at a Mexican restaurant when he visited Chicago a month or so ago (the meeting arranged, of course, by Funmi).

After the meeting we were driven to a “market outreach” event at a Women’s Market, arranged by and attended by Bisi (Erulu Bisi Fayemi), the governor’s wife. It’s tough to describe the event, since it seemed part to support the market, part religious, part music (drumming and singing), part dance, part colorful fashion show (each group wearing a different color/patterned dress and head scarf), part speeches ranging from financial matters to health. The event was infused with incredible spirit, energy and enthusiasm. One of the speakers was the leader of the women marketers, who complained in addressing the governor’s wife that she (the speaker) had not been adequately informed and included in planning the event. When the governor’s wife spoke, she praised the leader for her candor and led the group in giving her three cheers. Evidently, speaking truth to power occasionally pays off. The market women hold significant economic power and are a force to be reckoned with. This event clearly will be among the most memorable of our trip.




We sped off, winding rather crazily with our escort’s siren blaring from time to time. Funmi assured us that this was not typical Nigerian driving. They were driving us this way “because they could.” Our protocol people seem hell bent on getting us to our next spot, dead or alive. (Speaking of roads, here’s an extraneous observation I should have made a couple days ago. The highways from Lagos to Ibadan were loaded with hundreds, probably thousands, of oil tanker trucks carrying oil from the eastern oil fields.). Wherever we go, we are accompanied by two men in uniform, with rifles. When I asked Sola about the need for this, he explained that we were guests of the state, and they wanted to make sure we were safe from kidnapping, as we might be a ready target (especially if we had been traveling up North, which we are not). I guess this is comforting, or maybe not.


We were joined in our van by the Minister of Agriculture, Babajide Arowosafe, who was formerly with the United Nations in development, the permanent secretary in that ministry, Mike (I may have made that name up. Permanent secretary is the highest rank one can attain in the civil service in which Mike had served for more than twenty years. The idea of permanent secretaries is to give the ministries continuity beyond the term of a particular governor.), and a consultant to the ministry, Miles Gaisford, who was from Zimbabwe. All of us were extremely impressed with the three agriculture people. Unlike the government officials we’d met in Ghana, these people seemed very bright, knowledgeable in their areas, with well thought-out and practical plans for moving Nigeria’s agricultural world beyond subsistence farming. They had built a dam, which we visited, come up with a plan to help farmers by depositing some $10,000 in an account for each on which they could draw for seed, supplies, etc. in a way such that expenses were paid directly, i.e. the farmers did not have access to the money themselves, negotiated land development deals with foreign countries and induced some talented young people with engineering degrees to go into farming, rather than engineering. The ministry is aiding the farmers in forming cooperatives that will give them both buying and selling power. In Miles, they had hired somebody with broad experience, who seemed both knowledgable and willing to listen to others.

We went to see the dam, then drove on to see some cassava that had been planted, together with maize that produced two crops a year. The cassava was part of an expansive land area.


The region is lovely, physically, with mountains and rain forest areas. Infrastructure needs work as many of the roads are bad. However, the time spent driving is not wasted, as it gives us an opportunity for discussion with the minister, secretary and consultant, both on what we’re seeing, what the long-term plans are and matters extraneous to agriculture. For example, in talking about attracting industry to Nigeria, the secretary told us that one major obstacle is the lack of sufficient and reliable electrical power.

From the cassava area, we drove to a place where a cooperative of farmers was growing rice, and processing some of it themselves in a small wooden building. We had a chance to talk to the farmers and to see the processing facility.


Processing rice and other commodities is very important to the ministry’s plans, because processing adds greatly to the value and therefor the profitability of the operation. Where product is sold raw, most of the profit inures to the benefit of the country doing the processing. We drove a short distance to some of the rice fields where, donning heavy rubber boots, we walked to the muddy fields and heard about the planting and harvesting.

We drove to an area of both natural hot springs and cold water streams. Recently a resort has been constructed and a long wooden pathway has been built through the very pretty area of trees and other vegetation up to the springs. This would be a pleasant area to come to relax and get away, as Funmi and Sola have done a number of times. It also looks as if it would have been a nicer place to stay than The Fountain (I think my initial B- grade was probably a bit generous).


Back to our hotel for a quick shower and change into the fancy clothes we’d been told to bring. We all looked pretty spiffy, if I say so myself, especially Funmi in her dress and spectacular head scarf.


Over to the governor’s compound where the new Ekiti Knowledge Zone project was launched in a large conference room with people seated around a square table. Much preparation and thought has been given to an ambitious (some might say very unrealistic) effort to convert Ekiti, over a generation or more, into a sort of Silicon Valley of Nigeria. Long introductions of the steering committee were made. They are an impressive and diverse group of people, and include Funmi as a member. (An aside here on diversity. We and the Kipharts are adding great diversity to the areas in which we travel. Other than Miles, we are the only white people we’ve seen. Funmi told us that the people who gathered at Mama’s house, and probably many others we’ve encountered, have never seen a white person before.). Several speeches were made, including a couple less-than-impressive presentations by consultants to the committee. The governor formally launched the program in a rather short keynote speech. Photos were taken and then we lined up for a buffet dinner, definitely not lavish, which we ate at the conference tables. This was not the fancy event we had anticipated.

After dinner, Carol and I reconnected and chatted with the deputy governor, who we had sat next to at the dinner the other night, and who had been in education prior to her present position. We both like her, as she appears to have a great sense of humor and a real twinkle to her. We’ve told her that she must come to visit us in Chicago. She and the governor are elected as a pair, in the manner of our president and vice president, and she is confident that they will be reelected next year for another four year term, though she says that they need to be careful that the election is not stolen from them.

Dick, Susie, Carol and I are all filmed, responding to a question about our impressions of Ekiti. At the end, the four of us are asked to put four fingers up on each hand and move them forward and back towards the camera in a signal that the governor should be reelected to another four-year term. It was a surprise to us to learn that in only two days in Ekiti we’d become political operatives.

After exchanging goodbyes and thanks with the governor, we are driven back to the hotel.

Orikis and Protocol

August 25

Up early for a 7:00 departure.

Our time in Lagos was great, clearly highlighted by the people we met. I don’t feel that I have a very good sense of Lagos, as a city, though. All of the Nigerians we’ve met describe it as a vibrant, fast-moving, aggressive city on the order of New York. While I believe them, we did not really experience that ourselves.

We were picked up at the hotel in a van, sent by Ekiti State (of which, more later). In the SUV were a driver, guard and protocol officer. Another truck escorted us on our travels, siren sounding to clear the way. This entourage would accompany us until Tuesday.

Drove to the mainland portion of Lagos to the complex in which Sola’s 82-year old mother lives. Sola explained that the entire area around the buildings was completely empty when his father built it. Sola had been unaware of the project until his father took him there to show it to him, after it was completed. We walked a block, where Sola showed us a badly overgrown foundation for a building that was to have been a hospital that his father was building for him at which it was anticipated that he would practice after he returned from medical studies in the US. While Sola and Funmi were over studying, though, a military coup occurred, they did not return and the hospital was never built. A sign saying, “This land is not for sale” stands outside the property to deter people who do not own the property from purporting to sell it to another. Sola has thought about selling the property, but can’t bring himself to do that, because of what it was to have been.


We went up to the apartment to visit Sola’s mother and saw the obviously warm and tender relationship they have. At our request, his mama sang Sola’s Oriki, the praise poem that she sang to him as a boy, and still sings to him each time they talk. One of his sisters joined in the Oriki, then set out the brunch she had prepared for all of us, a task for which, as a caterer, she’s particularly well suited.


After saying our goodbyes, we set out on the long, 5-hour drive to Ekiti State, where Funmi grew up. We’d been warned that the roads were bumpy and bad, and they were, by US highway standards, but were far better than many we’d encountered in Ghana on past trips. The first several hours were flat and the roadside resembled a somewhat more urbanized Ghana, with open stalls selling various items, and assorted goats and cows grazing from time to time. The stores did not have the religious names that permeate Ghana stores. I did have a favorite large billboard that loomed above several port-a-potty-type units, “The Business of Shit is Serious Business.” I am not making this up, as several witnesses can attest, but we flew by quickly, and so I was unable to photograph it.

We drove by Ibadan, a red-roofed, sprawling city of some ten million, to which we will return on Tuesday. After a while, the land became hillier and forested, and eventually we reached Ekiti and drove to the Fountain Hotel, which is at best a b-minus, but will do for the next two nights. We spent a quick few minutes checking in and cleaning up a bit, before setting out to pay a “courtesy visit” on a US-educated king of a village in the area. We were greeted warmly by a bevy of colorfully-dressed chiefs, all of whom shook our hands and told us, “you are welcome.” Introductions were made in the very modest “palace” and several speeches welcoming us were given by chiefs in a language we could not understand. Then we were taken to the chief, before whom we kneeled, as he gave us individual blessings in English, wishing us long life, success, etc. After goodbyes and more handshakes, we drove to our next stop, “Mama,” Funmi’s 92-year old mother.





A large crowd had gathered there to greet us, shake our hands and tell us that we were welcome. Women serenaded Funmi, singing her Oriki, and we were ushered in to meet a lovely and smiling Mama with whom Funmi seems to share the same warm relationship that Sola and his mother have, and then shown into the dining room for another meal. After the meal we discussed the farming situation in the area with five farmers, which included farmers having to accept the prices offered to them without negotiation. Water is a huge problem, with there being very few wells offering safe water.

After the meal we went back in to see Mama, and she sang Funmi’s Oriki, accompanied by young women who sang verses that we later found out were both praising and roasting Funmi. We met Precious. Mama was a care giver to Precious, a very cute 3-year old girl, who was the daughter of a health service worker, who had lived with Mama for many years.


We set off again, behind sirens to our final stop, the home of Governor Fayemi and his wife. The governor is a perhaps 50-year old man who received his PhD in War Studies in England. He seems a very engaging, genuine, progressive, straight-forward person who is interested in helping his people. We’d all been given rather impressive, 130-page, large books, loaded with statistics and color photographs trumpeting the programs he’d initiated, and which he obviously hoped would lead to a second 4-year term in next year’s election. His wife has been active in feminine causes in Africa, and they lived together in Ghana for a good part of the past decade. In the large parlor, we exchanged introductions for about half an hour with the ministers of agriculture, trade, education, women’s issues, health and the deputy governor, all of whom joined us for a rather lavish buffet dinner and pleasant conversation in the dining room. Both in the parlor and the dining room, large flat screen TVs were tuned to a soccer match, though nobody appeared to be watching it.


All of these introductions, welcomes and pomp are rather uncomfortable for Carol and me, since the major contribution we’ve made to deserve all this is to have been Dick and Susie’s friends for forty years. It certainly is a privilege to be included in each step, though.

On our way out, the governor’s wife gave each couple gifts in a large shopping bag bearing the words “with compliments” and printed with a large, attractive picture of her. Weary, we headed back to our hotel, and crashed.

Meeting Our “Nigerian Family”

August 24

Up at five, but felt rather well rested. One more day, and I figure that I’ll be on local time.

Down for breakfast in the hotel with our group at 8 AM. Spent the rest of the morning in the air conditioned hotel restaurant, implementing Funmi’s clever idea of having people come to see us, rather than our having to run around to see them. Spent time with two of the young Nigerians who were with us poolside last night, Ayo and Uche, exploring a wide range of business ideas. In the 1990’s Nigeria suffered a real “brain drain,” with many talented young people going abroad and not returning, due to a perceived lack of opportunity. That seems to be reversing now, with young people seeing unlimited opportunities to make money here, and the political climate improving somewhat (though it has a very long way to go still).

We were also visited by a person in charge of medical research for a large pharmaceutical company, called Novartis. He and the Olopades all seem to think that a partnership between his company and the University of Chicago was a natural, a win-win situation, giving the U of C access to large amounts of data and giving Navaris the research help of the U of C, along with attendant credibility.

Other discussions with the Olopades included Nigerian traditions of child raising that infused children with a sense of their goodness and value, which interested Susie a great deal. Family songs, Orikis, were created to reflect this practice and to tell the family story, and we will hear some when we visit Sola and Funmi’s mothers tomorrow. We also spent time discussing issues of medical ethics, an area of passion and expertise of Sola.

In the afternoon, we headed off to an art gallery, Terra Culture, which had some well-made wood sculpture and also “paintings” made of buttons. Interesting, good and competent work, but not exceptional. We ate lunch at a restaurant that was part of the gallery. After lunch, we headed for a market area called Lekki, stopping en route at a small marketplace where we changed money with somebody who provides better rates than are available in banks. On the way to Lekki, we drove through Bananna Island, a very high end area, with large, expensive homes and upscale offices.

Lekki is an area that houses stalls of merchants selling crafts of all kinds, as well as clothing. The area was set up by the government to create a place where people could come to shop and buy from a large number of merchants. The market is like many we’ve seen around Africa and Asia, with rows of owners trying to entice you in to their shops/stalls to look at their wares, which they were offering you a “good price” on. The market was interesting enough, but less colorful than some others we’ve seen. The Olopades and Kipharts purchased a few things, and Carol bargained for a couple native-styled dresses for granddaughters, Zoe and Phoebe. At the market, we ran into a Nigerian from Chicago, Ayo, who the Olopades knew, who had purchased a lot of art in the market over the years, who led us around. Ayo was with a Swiss wealth management guy, Marcel, who he’d met the night before. Of course, Funmi, who knows everyone in the world, knew Marcel’s boss, who had thrown a fund raising dinner for the Global Health Initiative in Winnetka. Ayo snapped a photo of Funmi and Marcel to email to Funmi’s friend.




We headed back to the hotel to shower and change, then rushed out to dinner at an upscale hotel, a surprise party to celebrate Dick’s 72nd birthday. We got lost on the way to the hotel, and there were hilarious exchanges between Funmi, who was barking orders to the driver and demanding his cell phone to seek directions, and Sola, who was telling Funmi to “chill.” Funmi is not a chilling-type person.

Eventually, we made it to the dinner, which Funmi had orchestrated to bring her “Chicago family” together with six Nigerian friends, who she called her “Nigerian family”. There was a printed dinner menu for Dick’s birthday, with choices for each course. All the Nigerians were dressed in local garb, the women in flamboyant dresses, and the men in stylish, understated suits. Unfortunately, I had not brought my camera, but Carol has good, video footage.

One of the women was a high school friend of Funmi’s and one of the men was a high school roommate of Sola. They called each other, “My Boy” and the husband of Funmi’s friend was referred to as, “the Prince.” This was a very educated and highly-successful group of people in their early sixties, and included a prominent lawyer, a woman who worked for the Ford Foundation, an oil and gas consultant, a woman who ran an NGO that made micro-loans to small women farmers, a highly successful business man with varying business interests, including converting cassava into ethanol, and a woman who ran a catering business that sold to airlines. They were not short of opinions, vociferously expressed, on a wide range of topics, so it was a very lively evening, punctuated frequently with boisterous outbursts of laughter. The twelve of us were joined at a separate table, by five young professionals with whom we visited after singing happy birthday to Dick and watching him blow out the candles on the cake the Olopades had bought.

We headed back to the hotel, tired but exhilarated from a most memorable evening.

Customs of Various Sorts

August 23-24

I know you’re getting impatient for us to reach Nigeria. Well, by the time you read this, we’ll have arrived. But right now we’re in the Frankfurt Airport, awaiting our connecting flight to Lagos. Was able to make the last blog post from here and, indeed, could have done it from the plane by purchasing an hour of wifi for about fifteen bucks. Pretty amazing, but it pales in comparison to making blog posts from a bus in rural Guizhou Province, China last November. That one still boggles my mind.

Flight to Frankfurt was around seven hours (nine, with delays), a couple hours layover, then about six hours or so to Lagos. A long haul, but we’re used to it. And it’s a lot longer swim. Not surprisingly, the demographics on the plane change dramatically on the two legs, from almost all white, half German speaking, to almost all black, English speaking.

We’re here. Airport in Lagos was quite a scene, starting with the customs guy asking us for phone numbers of our host. We gave him the name of the Lagos hotel and with a sly smile, he said, “Oh, you were invited by a hotel?” That wasn’t going to fly, but luckily we flagged down Funmi and Sola, who had already cleared the Nigerian line. We explained what was going on, Funmi grabbed an airport official and, with her in tow, marched over to the customs guy and had everything cleared up in two minutes.

We went over to the baggage area, where Funmi and Sola retrieved the ten boxes they’d brought from the University of Chicago, essentially importing a small hospital. Airport officials inspected tags for everything, and Funmi let them know that she was an OON, Order of Niger, an honorific title bestowed on her a year or two ago, based on the nomination of the Governor of Ekiti State, with whom we’ll have dinner in a couple days. The honor is akin to OBE, or knighthood, in England. I told Funmi that I intend to coast through Nigeria, telling folks that I’m a FOON, Friend of an OON.

We were met at the airport by people from Ibadan (where we will also visit), with whom the Olopades and U of C have a continuing relationship. We and our twenty bags were loaded onto and transported by stretch golf cart-like vehicles, that wove with great difficulty into the parking area, where two vans awaited us. The crowd at the airport was part in Western dress and part in colorful native garb. Our cart drivers had to get out periodically to physically stop traffic to allow us to wend our way into the lot.



In the vans, we immersed ourselves in very heavy Lagos traffic. Our drivers tried various routes, finally getting us to the hotel in only about two hours. En route, we passed by the water slum areas with clouds of pollution hanging above them that almost abut the Victoria Island area, which houses the financial center of Lagos, and our hotel.

The two-hour ride was actually fine, though, as the air conditioned van provided a moving living room in which we all could learn more about Nigeria’s and the Olopades histories. Whenever we travel and hear or read about the histories of the places we visit, I am struck by how foreign our own experience is to that of the rest of the world. No foreign occupations, no colonial experience, no military juntas and rule. It makes it difficult for us to truly imagine the experiences of the places we visit. To give you the big picture on Nigeria, we were struck by how it bestrides sub-Saharan Africa as a kind of colossus. The population of Lagos alone is two-thirds the population of the entire country of Ghana. In a sense, Nigeria is three countries, the Ibo-dominated, oil rich Southeast (which seceded as Biafra in the late 1960s, resulting in a 30-month civil war that killed more than a million), the Yoruba West of the Country that includes Lagos, the country’s engine, and the Hausa North, which is largely Muslim, agrarian and military. These countries have different languages and cultures. There were originally twelve states in the three regions, but those twelve have now morphed into thirty-six, each with a government, and each (except Lagos) largely dependent on an oil-rich federal government for funds. Small wonder, then, that corruption is a big problem.

Funmi and Sola are both Yorubas, and proud of it. Funmi’s father was an Anglican minister and Sola’s a businessman. Both Sola and Funmi were highly educated in the best and most competitive schools in Nigeria. They are both dual citizens, travelling on Nigerian passports on the way over, and US passports on the way back. It’s important for us to keep in mind that in dealing with Funmi and Sola, we are talking to the upper strata of Nigerian society and not to think that they are representative of the population as a whole. I’m sure I’ll fill in more about the Olopades as we go though Nigeria together.

We arrived at the Blowfish Hotel, a very comfortable, though unpretentious place and were taken up to our rooms, passing through a courtyard area, with a very nice and large pool. We freshened up for 15 minutes, then met in the lobby for the short, one block walk to Yellow Chilli’s a popular local restaurant. There we sampled from a wide range of tasty Nigerian foods that Funmi and Sola ordered for our table.

After dinner, we walked back to the Blowfish and sat at tables by the pool. There we were joined by about eight young 30-something Nigerians, friends and relatives of the Olopades very accomplished children. It was a very attractive, impressive and educated group of young business, financial and entertainment industry people, most of whom had lived in the US. Nobody would sell this group short, and if they’re the future of Nigeria, that future looks bright. After 45 minutes or so of lively discussion, comparing life in Nigeria with life in the US and elsewhere in Africa, we retired to our rooms, exhausted from our 36 hours of travel.

Thoughts Aloft

August 22-23.

Flying from Chicago to Lagos via Frankfurt. In coach. Those of you who read my Myanmar blog will recall that I announced that I was in my business-class years. Well, I thought I was, but here’s what happened.

We’re flying United/Lufthansa, so I have insufficient miles to get a business-class ticket. I was intending to purchase a business-class fare, but discovered that for Carol and me the difference between coach and business was about $9000. The purpose of our trip is to help in rural areas of Nigeria and Ghana. When we thought about the difference between flying coach and business, and what a charitable contribution for the causes we wanted to support would mean instead, the decision was really pretty easy. So, we are sucking it up back in coach. Not that bad, really.

We are traveling with our friends, Dick and Susie Kiphart, and Funmi and Sola Olopade (well, not “with” exactly, but on the same plane). We have traveled with the Kipharts a number of times in Ghana, and the Olopades joined us last year in Ghana. None of us, other than the Olopades who were born there, have been to Nigeria. The Olopades are both doctors, and run the Global Health Initiative at the University of Chicago. If you want to know something about Funmi, I encourage you to take a look at Sola is equally accomplished, but does not have as good a press agent as Funmi.

For those of you who found my pre-trip history post too long or boring, or want to focus on what’s key, here are Sola and Funmi’s answers to three questions I put to them a few days before we left.

What five things should readers of the blog understand about Nigeria?

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic country and a relatively young democracy despite getting independence in 1960

Nigeria is a major oil producer and probably provides 25% of US oil import of light crude

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with an estimate of 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 black persons in the world being a Nigerian [read that one again!]

Nigerians value education and are the most educated in terms of masters level degrees earned by all immigrants in the USA

Moslems and Christians are about 50/50 in terms of numbers with the north being predominantly Moslems and the southwest being a mixture

2. What are Nigeria’s greatest strengths/assets?

The people, not only in terms of numbers but in terms of generosity, especially the Yorubas, who are sometimes captioned as “as hospitable as the Yorubas”

Natural resources beyond oil, which is what most people know


Confident and very assertive educated folks

Large families that provide safety net for those going through life’s challenges

3. What are Nigeria’s greatest problems/challenges?


Sole dependence on oil

Unreliable power (electrical) supply

Poor leadership

Population explosion

Health inequities

Reflecting back on the year since I last went to Ghana, it’s been filled with incredible travel–trips to Ghuizo Province in China, to Myanmar and to Cuba. Some of you have followed all of those trips (and for those who did not, it’s not too late to do so, as there are links on the website page on which this post appears). Each of these trips was fabulous in and of itself, but the individual blogs do not begin to capture the tapestry that these trips have woven in Carol and my lives.

The Myanmar trip was planned by our friends, Dotty and Jim Guyot, who have lived in Yangon for nine years. We’ve been in touch with them before and after our trip, and are working with them to help as they are transitioning the wonderful program they created there into a new stage of development. This work has kept us in closer touch with our friends Sharon Silverman and David Zimberoff, who first introduced us to the Guyots. Hillary Myint, the young lady who showed us around Yangon, just spent six days with us in Chicago, before going up to St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, MN. She was joined at our house the last two days by two former St. Olaf professors, the Bauers, Susan and Gene, who are sponsors of Hillary in MN. We will undoubtedly stay in touch with Hillary (and the Bauers), as we will with Aung Lin Htet, the young man who showed us around Mandalay. Aung Lin Htet will start college in Maine in a few days and we have been in email contact with him since leaving Myanmar.

With regard to Ghana and Nigeria, we are in constant contact via email and in person with the Kipharts and the Olopades, and, primarily through them, with others in Ghana. It’s fair to say that hardly a day goes by when Carol and I don’t think about Ghana or Nigeria. I don’t keep all of the emails, by any means, but I just checked my email folder since last September, and there are well over 500. Joe and Ida Kwarteng, who live near Cape Coast in Ghana, and who we have become friends with from our visits there, spent a couple days at our house earlier in August, with their daughter, who is starting at Wheaton College this month and we had dinner with the Kwartengs, Olopades and Kipharts to put finishing touches on trip plans about a week ago. Funmi cooked us all a delicious Nigerian dinner.

I am in touch with some of the people I met on my photography trip to China and have just formed a small group with a couple of them and a few other photographer friends to comment on each other’s photos on line. With respect to all of my trips, I spend many, many enjoyable hours on photographs (and Carol spends similar time on poems for the trips that she has been on) after each trip.

All of this is to say that our travel has become an important part of Carol and my lives, and not only during the trips we take. I’m keenly aware of how privileged we’ve been to form the relationships that we have through our travel, and the opportunities that has provided us to experience the way in which others around the world live.

And I’m beginning to think more about writing about travel writing, too. Carol wanted to attend a weekend poetry course at the summer Iowa Writers Workshop this June, so I tagged along and took a travel writing course. I’m not sure that it will be reflected much in the blog, since I’m pretty intent on just getting the experiences down, but, who knows, it might. In any case it was fun to think about what makes for good travel writing, and to read some very creative pieces.

Here are a few notes I took that may give you an idea of some things we talked about in Iowa (if you can make any sense of them):

Annecdote v .comprehensiveness
Food, high art, etc
If you go…then (advice)
Literary travel writing, rewards multiple readings
Gives something to the writer
Travel includes metaphysical as well as physical
First, second and third person
Sensory detail, image, multiplier
Use of names, numbers, facts, history, geography
Treatment of time
Makes us open to new ways of thinking, and writing. Receptivity.
Bucket lists
Othering, how we deal with the other we encounter in traveling

And, occasionally, we delved into the philosophical aspects of travel, too, so I’ll close with a couple quotes that ring true to me.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry James

Okay, enough background, context, etc. Let’s see what Nigeria has to offer.

Pre-Nigeria History Lesson

Okay, so are you packed? Carol and I leave for Nigeria on the 22nd, and I go on from there to Ghana on the 28th, while she returns home.

People ask me, “How do you prepare for a trip like this?” Actually, that’s literary license, nobody asks me that. But the question allows me to admit that I do shamefully little. I know some folks immerse themselves in history, politics, culture of the countries they travel to. I’m lucky if I read a book or two, often a novel, this time Half of a Yellow Sun. On this trip, there’s been a fair amount of preparation in talking to the four friends we’re traveling with, of which more later. The information I’ve presented below is material that I’ve stolen and edited from a very few sources, mainly Wikipedia. I hope it provides some useful background, but if it’s too much, just skim or skip around.



People ask me, “How do you prepare for a trip like this?” Actually, that’s literary license, nobody asks me that. But the question allows me to admit that I do shamefully little. I know some folks immerse themselves in history, politics, culture of the countries they travel to. I’m lucky if I read a book or two, often a novel, this time Half of a Yellow Sun. On this trip, there’s been a fair amount of preparation in talking to the four friends we’re traveling with, of which more later. The information I’ve presented below is material that I’ve stolen and edited from a very few sources, mainly Wikipedia. I hope it provides some useful background, but if it’s too much, just skim or skip around.


Nigeria, officially the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is a federal constitutional republic comprising 36 states and its Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The country is located in West Africa and shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Its coast in the south lies on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean. There are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria of which the three largest ethnic groups are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The country is larger in area than Texas.

The name Nigeria was taken from the Niger River running through the country. This name was coined by Flora Shaw, who later married Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator, in the late 19th century. Nigeria was formed as a result of the amalgamation by Lord Lugard of the northern and southern British protectorates around the Niger River. The British colonized Nigeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, setting up administrative structures and law while recognizing traditional chiefs through a system known as indirect rule. Nigeria became independent in 1960 and became a Republic in 1963. Several years later, between 1967-1970, it had a civil war as Biafra tried to establish independence. Military governments, through coups, have alternated with democratically elected governments.

Known as “the Giant of Africa”, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria is roughly divided in half between Christians, who mostly live in the South and central parts of the country, and Muslims, concentrated mostly in the north. The country is also approximately half rural and half urban. A minority of the population practice traditional and local religions, including the Igbo and Yoruba religions. Its oil reserves have brought great revenues to the country. It is listed among the “Next Eleven” economies. Nigeria is a member of both the Commonwealth of Nations, and the African Union. Since 1986, it has been a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.


One out of every six Africans is Nigerian. Presently, Even conservative estimates conclude that more than 20% of the world’s black population lives in Nigeria.

According to the United Nations, Nigeria has been undergoing explosive population growth and one of the highest growth and fertility rates in the world. By their projections, Nigeria is one of eight countries expected to account collectively for half of the world’s total population increase from 2005–2050. By 2100 the UN estimates that the Nigerian population will be between 505 million and 1.03 billion people (middle estimate: 730 million). In 1950, Nigeria had only 33 million people. Present estimates of population range rather widely, but may exceed 165 million.

Nigeria’s largest city is Lagos. Lagos has grown from about 300,000 in 1950 to an estimated 15 million today (some sources put this number considerably lower), and the Nigerian government estimates that city will have expanded to 25 million residents by 2015.


On 1 October 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Nigeria’s government was a coalition of conservative parties: the Nigerian People’s Congress (NPC), a party dominated by Northerners and those of the Islamic faith; and the Igbo and Christian-dominated National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) led by Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became Nigeria’s second Governor-General in 1960 and President in 1963. Forming the opposition was the comparatively liberal Action Group (AG), which was largely dominated by the Yoruba and led by Obafemi Awolowo. The cultural and political differences among Nigeria’s dominant ethnic groups: the Hausa (‘Northerners’), Igbo (‘Easterners’) and Yoruba (‘Westerners’), were sharp.

Civil War

The disequilibrium and perceived corruption of the electoral and political process led in 1966 to first of several back-to-back military coups.

The violence against the Igbo increased their desire for autonomy. By May 1967, the Eastern Region voted to declare independence as a state called the Republic of Biafra, under the leadership of Lt Colonel Emeka Ojukwu. The Nigerian Civil War began as the Nigerian (Western and Northern) side attacked Biafra (South-eastern) on 6 July 1967 at Garkem. The 30 month war, with a long siege of Biafra and its isolation from trade and supplies, ended in January 1970. Estimates of the number of dead in the former Eastern Region are between 1 and 3 million people, from warfare, disease, and starvation, during the 30-month civil war.

Military Juntas

During the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigeria joined OPEC, and the huge revenue generated made the economy richer, although the military administration did nothing to improve the standard of living of the population, or to help the small and medium businesses, or even invest in the infrastructure. As oil revenues fueled the rise of federal subventions to states, the federal government became the centre of political struggle and the threshold of power in the country. As oil production and revenue rose, the Nigerian government created a dangerous situation as it became increasingly dependent on oil revenues and the international commodity markets for budgetary and economic concerns; it did not build economic stability. That spelled doom to federalism in Nigeria.

Beginning in 1979, Nigerians participated in a brief return to democracy when Olusegun Obasanjo transferred power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari. The Shagari government became viewed as corrupt and incompetent by virtually all sectors of Nigerian society. The military coup of Muhammadu Buhari shortly after the regime’s fraudulent re-election in 1984 was generally viewed as a positive development by most of the population. Buhari promised major reforms, but his government fared little better than its predecessor. His regime was overthrown by another military coup in 1985.

The new head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, declared himself president and commander in chief of the armed forces and the ruling Supreme Military Council. He set 1990 as the official deadline for a return to democratic governance. After Babangida survived an abortive coup, he pushed back the promised return to democracy to 1992. Free and fair elections were finally held on 12 June 1993, showing a presidential victory for Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. Babangida chose to annul the elections, leading to mass civilian violent protests which effectively shut down the country for weeks. This forced Babangida to keep his promise to relinquish office to a civilian-run government, but not before appointing Ernest Shonekan as head of the interim government. Babangida’s regime has been considered the most corrupt, and responsible for creating a culture of corruption in Nigeria.

Shonekan’s caretaker regime was overwhelmed in late 1993 by the military coup of General Sani Abacha. Abacha oversaw brutal rule using violence on a wide scale to suppress the continuing civilian unrest. He shifted money to offshore accounts in various western European banks and voided coup plots by bribing army generals. Several hundred million dollars in accounts traced to him were discovered in 1999. The regime came to an end in 1998 when the dictator was found dead amid questionable circumstances. His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, adopted a new constitution on 5 May 1999, which provided for multiparty elections .


Nigeria regained democracy in 1999 when it elected Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military head of state, as the new President of Nigeria ending almost 33 years of military rule (from 1966 until 1999) excluding the short-lived second republic (between 1979 and 1983) by military dictators who seized power in coups d’état and counter-coups during the Nigerian military juntas of 1966–1979 and 1983–1998. Although the elections which brought Obasanjo to power in 1999 and again in 2003 were condemned as unfree and unfair, Nigeria has shown marked improvements in attempts to tackle government corruption and to hasten development.

Ethnic violence over the oil producing Niger Delta region and inadequate infrastructures are some of the issues in the country. Umaru Yar’Adua of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) came into power in the general election of 2007 – an election that was witnessed and condemned by the international community as being severely flawed.

Yar’Adua died while in office on 5 May 2010. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as Yar’Adua’s replacement on 6 May 2010, becoming Nigeria’s 14th Head of State, while his vice, a former Kaduna state governor, Namadi Sambo, an architect, was chosen on 18 May 2010, by the National Assembly following President Goodluck Jonathan’s nomination for Sambo to be his Vice President. (It figures, when I finally get a Nigerian name I can pronounce, he makes what sounds like a first name his last name, so I remain confused. Good luck, indeed.)


Nigeria is the 12th largest producer of petroleum in the world and the 8th largest exporter, and has the 10th largest proven reserves. The country joined OPEC in 1971. Petroleum plays a large role in the Nigerian economy, accounting for 40% of GDP and 80% of Government earnings. However, agitation for better resource control in the Niger Delta, its main oil producing region, has led to disruptions in oil production and prevents the country from exporting at 100% capacity.

Nigeria has one of the fastest growing telecommunications markets in the world, major emerging market operators (like MTN, Etisalat, Zain and Globacom) basing their largest and most profitable centres in the country.

The country has a highly developed financial services sector, with a mix of local and international banks, asset management companies, brokerage houses, insurance companies and brokers, private equity funds and investment banks.

Nigeria also has a wide array of underexploited mineral resources which include natural gas, coal, bauxite, tantalite, gold, tin, iron ore, limestone, niobium, lead and zinc. Despite huge deposits of these natural resources, the mining industry in Nigeria is still in its infancy.

Before the oil boom, agriculture used to be the principal foreign exchange earner of Nigeria. At one time, Nigeria was the world’s largest exporter of groundnuts, cocoa, and palm oil and a significant producer of coconuts, citrus fruits, maize, pearl millet, cassava, yams and sugar cane. About 60% of Nigerians work in the agricultural sector, and Nigeria has vast areas of underutilized arable land.

Health and Education

Health, health care, and general living conditions in Nigeria are poor. Life expectancy is 47 years (average male/female) and just over half the population has access to potable water and appropriate sanitation. Nigeria suffers from periodic outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and sleeping sickness. It is the only country in Africa to have never eradicated polio, which it periodically exports to other African countries. A 2004 vaccination drive, spearheaded by the W.H.O. to combat polio and malaria, met with some opposition in the north, but polio was cut 98% between 2009 and 2010.

Education is in a state of neglect. After the 1970s oil boom, tertiary education was improved so that it would reach every subregion of Nigeria. Education (base tuition only) is provided free by the government, but the attendance rate for secondary education is only 29% (32% for males, 27% for females). The education system has been described as “dysfunctional” largely because of decaying institutional infrastructure. 68% of the population is literate, and the rate for men (75.7%) is higher than that for women (60.6%).

Reflections on Cuba, and Hasta Luego

May 3

Early breakfast on the roof, before setting forth for the airport. On the bus I read the spoof blog that I wrote of what really happened on our trip, which is very well received by the group. We have three hours at the airport, which I spend talking to Doug, Isabella and Michael, and looking at the fabulous photos that Doug took on two prior trips to Cuba, which he has on his iPad. Some reflections on the trip.

Cuba was great, and I’d definitely consider a return trip. It would be nice to be able to do that other than in a group (even though our group was very good and fun), but that doesn’t seem likely in the near term. As expected, I enjoyed being with some more than others in our group, but there were no real problem people.

On the cultural side, it would have been nice to have had more contact with people. There was not the level of give and take that I’d expected with Cuban photographers, and I did not get a sense of anyone opening up to discuss the Cuban political system. The American embargo has has a big impact on Cuba, and there’s resentment for that and for the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, but there was no apparent hostility towards us, as Americans. People were very friendly and we got a sense of Cuban food, dance and music. (Okay, here’s a bit of Cuban music trivia, courtesy of my friend and loyal British follower, Pat Hemmens. The well-know song Guantanamera is based on a poem of Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary hero after whom the Havana airport is named.)

Certain stops we made were particularly interesting–Korda’s daughter’s house, Josie’s house, the apartment building, the horse whispering and the Santarian church. The evening at the Tropicana was quite an experience and the music and dance we saw everywhere were fun. But best was just wandering around the streets and photographing.

Both Havana and Trinidad are appealing cities in different ways. Havana is being restored, albeit very slowly, to some of its former grandeur. The charm of Trinidad is being preserved because of it having been designated a UNESCO site. Of course, there is much of Cuba that we did not see.

Cuba is definitely changing. The ability to own businesses spear-headed by Raul Castro is huge. This gives people hope of earning some money that will allow them to live better. One does not get any of the sense of a people beaten down by their government, as we did in Myanmar. It would be interesting to come back in a few years to see what changes have occurred, and so that Carol can see Cuba. Maybe by then Florida won’t be a key electoral swing state, so that the US can establish some semblance of a sensible relationship with Cuba. Or perhaps some candidate will show a little courage. But I’m not holding my breath.

Thanks for following, and for your comments. Next stop: Nigeria in August.

Crabs and Photos of Che

May 2

Breakfast at the hotel and depart by 8 AM for Havana.

Run into a whole bunch of crabs, making their way from the ocean across the road that we are on. We stop to photograph them.


Drive the rest of the way into Havana, arriving around 2 PM. We are dropped at a beautiful old parador, called La Guarida, where we have a terrific lunch.


We also take many photos in the home, in and around a great old staircase and open area where a young boy has on boxing gloves, girls are playing and skipping rope and adults have a game of dominos going.






From here we taxi to the home of the daughter of the famous Cuban photographer, Korda. I admit to being skeptical that this will be worthwhile, but it turns out to be fascinating. Korda is best known for his revolution photos, including the iconic one of Che, but he was also a fashion photographer and was among the early people to photograph while diving. There are wonderful examples of his work around the house, including of Fidel with famous people like Hemingway (below) and his daughter, Diana Diaz, a former ballet dancer and friend of Jorge, is very gracious in showing us around and answering our questions.



The famous photo of Che was taken in 1959, used to advertise some conferences in 1960 and 1961, then forgotten. An Italian journalist who went to Bolivia where Che was fighting in 1967 wanted a good photo of Che. He was directed to Korda, who gave him a copy of the photo as a present. Two months later, Che was killed in Bolivia. The Italian made a million copies of the photo, put his name on it and sold them for $5 each as his photo. Diana says that Korda felt that the recognition he later got was adequate compensation for the photo. In the photo of Diana above, she is holding the original of the contact sheet containing the famous photo of Che.

Around 5:30, we return to check in to the hotel, clean up and prepare for dinner, which we have outside in the Plaza de Catedral at El Patio. Cool breezes and a rather good meal. We meet Dustin’s Cuban girlfriend, Yani, who has just learned that she’s gotten a six-month visa to the US. Jorge brings a portfolio of his photographs. A few group members purchase photos, and Doug and Nevada trade photos with Jorge.

Revolutionary Fervor and Whispering to Horses

May 1

May Day, Labor Day in Trinidad, and we head down very early to the parade site, Cespedes Park, where people slowly gather. Once the time comes, though, just about the entire town is there, some of them under government pressure to come, others because they want to enjoy the festivities. The mood is jovial, a number of bands play and signs proclaim support for socialism, for Fidel, for the revolution, for the Cuban Five, who have been held in prison in the US for more than fifteen years on charges of spying and many pro-Chavez signs.





After watching for over an hour, Henry, Doug and I retire for coffee in a fancy hotel lobby on the square. Henry and I are able to see some of Doug’s fabulous black and white photos on an iPhone. They are stunningly good. Doug is a professional photographer whose style is very different from Nevada’s, but whose photos are every bit as good. You can see his work at

The group meets and we retire to Julio’s house to relax, then bus to the Grill Caribe on an oceanside beach. We spend several hours relaxing on lounges under thatch-roofed cabanas and lunching. Around three, we bus to a farm owned by a friend of Julio’s. Julio gives us a very interesting exhibition of horse whispering, in which he gains control of a horse he (says that he) has not seen before through the use of body language. As it is very hot, we all opt to be dropped back at the hotel to shower, change and relax before dinner.



Bus back into town and wander around again photographing whatever catches my eye in the way of buildings and people. These wandering around times may be the best part of the trip.




Meet up with Dustin to go to the restaurant he booked, right next door to the one we ate at last night, 1514 Restaurant. Antique pieces, open air courtyard and musicians with two excellent rumba dancers. We certainly have not been short changed on music and dancing, a predominant theme of our trip. Delicious lobster dish, beautifully presented, with creole sauce and vegetables which, with three chi-chis and tip comes to twenty CUCs.

Taxi back to hotel to pack and ready for tomorrow morning’s departure.

African Gods and Horses in Homes

April 30

I opt to skip the early morning walk, so head off, after breakfast at the hotel, around 9 AM. First stop is a dance performance, at Palenque de los Congos Reales, an African/Cuban dance with dancers representing various African gods, then some rumba dances. Performance is good, if a bit repetitive of others we’ve seen. Some of us are called up to dance with the group and even a few minutes of not particularly strenuous dancing gives one a healthy appreciation for the energy and stamina demands on the dancers.




We head to the home and temple, Templo Yemalla, of a Santaria priest, named Israel Gomez. We see a shrine erected to the sea god, who,is the god of this temple. Julio explains how the Santaria religion links African gods with saints of the Catholic Church. Israel blesses and purifies Nevada, who he picks out without having been told that she is the leader. He allows us to take photos of him, and we walk around a bit before leaving. Israel became a priest as the result of his discovery of an African artifact buried in the house grounds, which was taken as a sign of his future role. There is no plan for succession, and when I ask Julio whether Israel is married, he says that there is no prohibition on that, but, between us, he thinks that many Santaria priests are gay.



We walk to Julio’s home, photographing on the way. His home is large and attractive, and he runs three rooms as a B&B. We sit for some time, talking, and at one point, Julio marches his 3-year old horse, Apache, into the house and says that the horse is a stallion, “like me.” We look at some of Julio’s photographs, which are okay, but not exceptional. We walk a couple blocks to a restaurant, Cubita, where we have a large lunch.


We bus to an arts academy, where we are shown around by the principal. It’s a large school, but has only 32 students in the 4-year program. Last year over 150 applied, but only six were accepted. They must do exams (produce work) in five disciplines to be considered for admission. We see some drawings and paintings by some third year students that are quite extraordinarily good. The school has been in existence at this high school level for 25 years and many of its graduates are successful artists, including a sculptor who lives in NY, having married an American and whose work is displayed in New York.


It’s quite hot in the sun today, so we are happy to return to our rooms for a couple hours to rest, before setting forth again at 6:15. Again, I decide to separate from the group in walking around town and, again, I’m pleased with the connections I’m able to make, one on one. I’m including quite a few photos from my walk.










As planned, our group meets at a restaurant recently established in his home by a friend of Laura’s, Malibran Palador. Food is terrific and plentiful. A good, young group of men plays and sings local music and, for the last number, entices four or five members of our group to participate on various percussion instruments, which is great fun to watch.

Walk to the bus. Very early start tomorrow. Here are a few street scenes from the walk to the bus.



Trinidad: Pigs and Cigars, with Charm

April 29

Finish packing, then up for rooftop buffet breakfast before setting off at 8 for long bus ride. On bus, Nevada talks about photography, much of which I’d heard in China, but it’s helpful to hear it again and be reminded. Several of the people on the trips are techie geeks, so there is a lot of talk that I understand little to nothing about. It did confirm my impression that the small SLRs like my Sony are the future, as they’ve been greatly improved already.

After a pit stop, Nevada spends a good deal of time with me reviewing images. This is very helpful, and confirms that I really had no notion of what I was doing in photographing things in the old house we visited. I think I can do a considerably better job next time. We reviewed some color and black and white images from Ghana, which also was helpful to me in figuring out what works in color, what in black and white, and what in either.

Lunch in city of Cienfuegos at a marina was fair, then on to Trinidad, where we make the obligatory local artisan stop at a pottery place, Casa Chichi ceramic factory, which, mercifully, was brief. Drove to our hotel, Las Cuevas, located on a hill above the city, where we met Julio, a photographer and quite a character. We had a long time to visit on a patio with a very pleasant breeze, because check-in took forever. We bus and walk up to our rooms, past a pool with Cuban rap music blasting. This place is unlikely to be mistaken for an Oberoi, but will do fine for the three nights I’m here.

Bus ride down to town and walk to the main square, Plaza Mayor, where we’re told we should meet again 21/2 hours later to walk to dinner. Julio is leading a walk for those who want to follow, or we’re free to break off whenever we want. After about half a block with the group, I turn right and go off on my own, seeing no reason to photograph with ten others.

This turns out to be a very good decision. It gives me a chance to practice my Spanish and allows me to talk with and photograph interesting scenes: a guy smoking a cigar walking his pig, kids playing ball, folks in windows and doorways, and more.












Trinidad is a charming city of about 30,000, the third city to b founded in Cuba, in 1514. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestone, and buildings are painted pastel colors. Very nice-looking restaurants and souvenir and artisan galleries dot the area, attesting to the importance of tourism to the city’s economy. Situated on the South coast of the island, fresh fish are plentiful.

I stop for a beer at a cafe with music around seven, and, looking around at couples from other countries with Cuba guide books, I think it’s a shame that we in the US are prevented by our government from traveling around Cuba freely. About 7:45, I wander down to our meeting place and hook up with Robert. Later, Dustin meets us and walks us to the restaurant, Vista Gourmet, where we have dinner and drinks. My lobster dinner is very tasty, and with drinks and tip comes to 26 CUCs. Talk with Robert, Tom, Theresa and Nevada over dinner. Taxi back to the hotel, shower and in bed by 11 PM.

Old Homes and Tangos

April 28

Another walk through parts of Old Havana, past the Capitol and the closed-for-restoration National Theater. Colorfully painted and architecturally beautiful buildings give one the sense of the grandeur of what was here. People live in many of these old buildings, and others are being restored. Photograph street scenes and talk to Dustin about recent changes that permit people to get licenses and own their own businesses, changes pushed by Raul Castro, who is in his late seventies. Fidel, about 87, appears still to be with it and healthy, according to Dustin.



Another breakfast on the very pleasant rooftop of our hotel, then meet at 9 for taxis to the huge Havana cemetery, Necropolis Cristóbal Colón, where since its founding in 1871, over two million people are buried. Walk around the cemetery for 40 minutes, but cannot even scratch the surface.



Then off to see a mansion called Casa Miguel Alonso, in the Vedado, or forbidden, area, which is still owned by a family, that, unlike most wealthy families, never left during the revolution. Miguel died a few months ago, so we are shown around by his wife, Josie, who is clearly sad after 54 years of marriage, but is friendly and speaks English. The home feels a bit like a real movie set of the past history and shows the decaying signs of age with little update. We spend quite some time photographing. Though I haven’t a clue what I’m doing, some of the photos are not too bad.



We lunch at El Gringo Viejo, in the home of the owner, who is involved in the society that protects old cars in Havana. The food is very good. I have lobster in a garlic sauce, some others have pigs elbows. And plenty of cold beer.

Back to the hotel for brief blogging and relaxing before setting out for our afternoon adventure, which starts with a walk some distance in more heat than we’ve been having. We are visiting a house which, at various times, has served as a warehouse, a hotel for sailors, a whorehouse and currently is divided into many small apartments. The ones we visit are up three steep flights. We’re welcomed by the residents and able to look and walk into their quarters, and talk and photograph them. Vestiges of stained glass windows from a prior incarnation remain.




Henry and I decide to go to the nearby hotel to check emails and, in my case, to make a blog post. After this, we walk down a main drag called the Prado, where dancing, dominoes playing and kids playing are going on, among other things. We give some of the children small gifts we’ve brought (lollipops and other candy, in my case), which delights them.

As anticipated, we hook up with the rest of our group at the Malecon, for a walk along the sea wall, where we watch young men diving from rocks into the ocean and chat with some locals.



After a while, we break into groups, with JP and Karin and I heading back down the Prado with Dustin. I photograph couples dancing the tango and old cars whizzing by in blurs.




After a while, I walk back to the hotel, wash and change shirts and head out to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Nao, that had been recommended by Dustin. After a really very good beef dinner (with excellent fries) and a couple Bucanero (think pirates) beers, I head back to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow morning’s rather early departure for Trinidad.

I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of Havana and would welcome more time here (I have less than a day after Trinidad). It does feel like a trip back in time, and not only because of the vintage cars, though that certainly adds to the feel. There’s a flavor of the exotic here, though I don’t find it easy to pinpoint why. One begins to get a small feel for the Cuba’s complicated history and it’s troubled relationship with the US. Not unlike Myanmar, there’s an undercurrent of possible change, though formidable obstacles remain.

Tropicana, Without Desi.

April 27

Met in the lobby at 6:15 for a pre-dawn walk to catch the early light. Great opportunity to photograph old Havana just waking up.



Over to the bay to photograph some fishermen, then wend back to the hotel for buffet breakfast on the pleasantly cool rooftop. Hour to relax before meeting again at 9.

Dustin explains that any transaction with the government takes place in the local currency of pesos. Cubans receive monthly ration cards that allow them to buy modest amounts of rice and other staples at the markets. These cards used to provide for much more, but are being scaled back.

Prior to the revolution in 1959, Cuba was effectively under US control, with Batista acting as a puppet head for US corporate interests. Many people fled prior to the revolution, after which everything was nationalized, including many of what used to be fine single-family homes in old Havana. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia provided everything to Cuba in exchange for sugar and sugar products. After the collapse, the Cuban economy fell to pieces and hungry people tried to flee by boat to the US and elsewhere. The embargo of Cuba by the US and prohibition of travel there has had a big effect on Cuba, and is part of the reason why there are some 55,000 pre-1959 American cars in working order in Cuba. Today, the biggest share of tourism comes from Canada, though there are many direct flights to Cuba from Europe.

Meeting at 9, we break into two groups. I’m in one led by Jorge, the Cuban photographer, and Nevada. We take a very long walk in the old Havana area, stopping to talk to people, looking into building vestibules and generally soaking in the atmosphere of Old Havana. An enormous amount of restoration work has been going on for some ten years. Before and after photos attest to significant progress. It’s hard to imagine that Havana will not eventually be restored to its former grandeur, as one of the world’s great destinations.




We stop in at a Catholic church, Church de la Merced, which doubles for people descended from Africans who are in the Santeria religion, which has blended IRS gods with the icons of Catholicism. Small shops in the area sell artifacts for use in the Santeria religion. We see initiates dressed all in white, with white umbrellas. Many babies are being baptized at the church.

We stop by a place where young boxers are being trained, put through their laborious exercises by a trainer. We see them sparring, exercising, jumping rope, shadow boxing and punching bags. We take way too many photos of them.




From there another sizeable walk to a third floor walk-up restaurant, El Asturianito, where food is plentiful and quite good and, more importantly, the beer is very cold. Slip off my shoes during lunch and am among the half of the group that opts to take bicycle taxis back to the hotel, rather than walk; a very good decision. Visit the room in the hotel that Ernest Hemingway used to stay in, a few doors down from my own. he wrote three books there, including Death in the Afternoon. A brief few minutes in the room before meeting in the lobby to board our bus.

We ride a fair distance to a tree-shaded square, Casa de Rumba, where dancers, singers and musicians will perform sambas, rumbas and other high-energy dances. It’s as interesting to watch the large crowd seated around the square, who are very into the music, singing and moving with it. Members of the audience, ranging from a baby to old ladies to everything in between participated, and some were terrific. Much of the dancing was overtly sexual. While it was quite fun, an hour and a half was more than I needed.




Dropped at Park Central Hotel, where I signed up for an hour of wifi, posted yesterday’s blog and checked emails. This may be the last post I can make while on the trip. Bummer.

Walked back to our hotel down Obispo, a main walking street, loaded with people. Old Havana has a great feel to it. Greeted in the lobby by Nevada, who told me the water was out again, so sat down for a beer, looked at photos and caught up on today’s blogging.

Almost 8 PM, and still no water. I’m to meet most of the group in the lobby in 45 minutes, and then taxi out to see the show at the famous Tropicana night club. Prices in Havana have been very modest, but we’re blowing our budget tonight, spending 100 CUCs each (over $100) for front row seats. We may be a pretty smelly bunch. Miraculously, water (cold) materializes at 8:25, thus making getting into clean clothes plausible. The show at the Tropicana was spectacular, definitely worth the price. An open air night club that holds 1000, with stages on different levels around the grounds. Two hours of brilliant dancing, costumes and singing.







We are driven there and back by a driver in a 1951 Chevrolet that’s in great condition. Our driver speaks quite passable English, has medical training, owns a farm and has relatives in the U.S. He hopes for better relations; we are not enemies.

Praying in Spanish

April 26

Met group in lobby. Went into lobby Starbucks for coffee and came out to find the group had left on shuttle to airport, my luggage sitting in the lobby. Tough group. Called Nevada on her cell and took next shuttle to terminal. Hour and a quarter in various lines, overweight luggage fee of $44, through security and hour and a half before our packed charter jet departs for Havana. The plane is filled with many Cubans and with other groups, including alumni from Yale and another, I think, from Stanford.

Photo thoughts. I’ll be shooting RAW and JPEG for the first time on this trip, having previously shot only the latter. RAW files are much larger than the compressed JPEG files, thus allowing more possibilities in modifying them. Also have a hyper drive I bought, which will allow me to copy photos from the camera to it. Nevada (and others) had been mortified to learn that previously I’d had no backup on trips. Most others back up on a laptop, but I’m too lazy to lug one on trips. It’s interesting that other makes (Olympus and Fuji) of the smaller Sony camera that I began using last Fall in China are now being used by several others on the trip, including Nevada. Clearly, they are the wave of the future, as others in the group are looking at them longingly.

The flight is 45 minutes, so we arrive around 11:30, multiple customs and baggage lines with waits, but no real hassles. We’re met at the airport by our guide, Laura, and workshop representative, Dustin, and, after changing some (Canadian) dollars I’d brought because of better exchange rates for CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), the Cuban money used by foreigners, for something less than a dollar/CUC, we board our comfortable air conditioned bus. Laura explains that the main problems in Cuba are economic, and Cubans do whatever they can to earn CUCs, which are much more valuable than the Cuban pesos which they are allocated to buy essentials. I need to learn more about this.

We ride to a large restaurant, called El Aljibe, at which we have a good enough lunch of chicken, rice and black beans while being entertained by four musicians, below, and Nevada.



After lunch we have a bus ride to Revolutionary Square, which is aptly known as Revolutionary Parking Lot, opposite which a large wire sculpture of Che Guevara decorates a building, along with the famous words he wrote to Fidel, “Hasta la victoria, siempre,” or “until victory, forever.”


From there we drive to the well-known Hotel Nacional, a nicely-preserved hotel from the 1930s, where one can see pictures of everyone famous who has visited there, including this unlikely combo of Betty Grable and Stan Musial. We walk around the hotel and grounds.


Laura points out some landmarks and gives us some history about Jose Marti, the poet and revolutionary organizer against the Spanish in the late 19th century, who was killed in 1895 and remains a national hero, with a big statue in Revolutionary Square (as well, Laura points out, as one in Central Park in New York). There’s something nice that Carol would appreciate about an airport being named after a poet, even if it wasn’t his poetry that inspired the honor. We drive to a spot a few blocks from our hotel, since driving restrictions in old Havana, where we are located, prevent the bus from getting there. We have some help with the luggage and walk over cobbled streets in hot, but not unbearable, weather to the hotel, where a lively crowd is hanging out around the bar. We’re served a welcome drink in the lobby and our room keys are handed out for the ride up in the small, old-fashioned elevator. Our hotel, the Ambos Mundos, is not nearly as fancy as the Nacional, but it has a “real” feel to it that I like. The room is simple, but adequate, and we have an hour and a half to relax before a lobby meeting at 6. I am able to operate the hyper drive, thanks to the instruction I got last week from Nirajan, the Nepalese young man who graduated from Northwestern and has been staying with us. Unfortunately, we do not have internet at the hotel, so posting blogs will be a challenge.

Meeting with Dustin, Nevada and our Cuban photographer Jorge gives us information about the next few days, which sound jam-packed and fun. While waiting for the meeting, I may have taken the first interesting photos I’ve made all day from our second floor meeting room window, looking down at small kids on the street who are being entertained by a mime dressed all in black.


Our whole group is going to a nearby restaurant for dinner, except me, because I’m going to Beth Shalom services. Dustin puts me in a taxi with directions and I arrive at the reform synagogue and am greeted in Yiddish by the shamas and seated behind an Israeli pilot and his wife, with whom I chat before the service starts. The service is led by a young man and women, and I’m able to follow in both Hebrew and Spanish (somewhat), though almost none of the melodies are familiar. It’s interesting to experience prayers translated into Spanish and to reflect on how this happens in languages around the world, where we all read the same Hebrew, but experience different takes on it in translation. There is a kiddush and meal afterwards, but I don’t stay, opting to head back to try to catch the end of dinner with the group.

Getting back is an adventure. I first flag down a 1940s Chevrolet taxi, in which I become the fifth passenger, lodged between the driver and another man in the front row. Eventually the other passengers all get out and I’m left in the front seat with the driver, loud music pulsing from the car’s rear speakers, as he shifts gears and moves the powerless steering wheel around. My driver doesn’t quite know where I’m going, but drops me off at the Capitol. There I negotiate with another taxi, who takes me to the Plaza de la Catedral, which is not far rom the restaurant. A young man kindly walks me the couple blocks to the restaurant, where I have a beer and bread and butter with the others, who are finishing off what they said was a very good dinner in the quite attractive Dona Eutimia restaurant.

After dinner, we walk around the area, which is very charming and I take what I think may be a couple pretty interesting photos. It will be fun to walk around this area in the daylight. I walk with Doug and Henry. The former is represented in several photo galleries, including one in Santa Fe, and I pick up some interesting ideas, including shooting black and white JPEGs and RAW color at the same time. Once again, everyone is more experienced than I am, which is great, if a trifle intimidating (or might be, if I were easily intimidated, which I’m not).


Back at the hotel, I prepare for a welcome shower, except there’s no water. I’m told there will be in half an hour. We’ll see.

Water. Shower. Good. In fact, muy bueno.

Dreaming in Cuban

April 25

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m starting to write this on April 22. Got to begin developing the mindset, and, besides, there are a few background matters to talk and think about, so here it goes.

First, thoughts about blogging. People ask me whether this doesn’t take an awful lot of time. Well, yes; but I think it’s worth it. For one thing, it provides a record of the trip in a way that the journals I used to keep did. But another, and perhaps more important reason, is that blogging forces you to think about things in ways that you might not otherwise think about them (or, at least, I would not).

You go into a trip with certain expectations, and those expectations are bound to color your experience. For me, Cuba is a great trip. It’s close, it’s in the same time zone, but at the same time it’s exotic. The title of this post, Dreaming in Cuban, is stolen from the title of the book by Cristina Garcia that I am currently reading. It’s quite a wonderful book, with the kind of magical realism that I like in Latin and South American writers. It also is written in very poetic language. It evokes some of the mystery that Cuba conjures in my mind – women smoking cigars, bulky vintage American cars, colonial architecture, romantic revolutionaries, and a once exotic nightlife. There also used to be a Jewish presence in Cuba that I hope to at least get a little taste of.

My early recollections of Cuba date back to the 1950s, when, like many US tourists seeking the sun, my parents traveled to Cuba. They returned well tanned and a bit intoxicated by their experience. Of course, Cuba also figures largely in some history that I recollect quite clearly – the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis which to me was the scariest time that we have lived through by a long shot. It took quaint historical events, such as blockades, out of the history books and put them on the front pages of newspapers and on TV screens. To many of us, it seemed like the end of the world as we knew it was a real possibility.

Of course, for 50 years, Cuba was out of bounds for travelers from the US. Only recently has there been some loosening of those restrictions. Now group trips are permitted, but only for cultural purposes. I am traveling with a small group from the Santa Fe Photography Workshop, on a cultural photography trip in which we will be meeting and talking with Cuban photographers. The trip is being led by Nevada Wier, the same person who led the trip that I took to Southwestern China last October and November. We will be a group of 12 people, nine from across the United States, two from Singapore and one from Belgium. The trip is not a workshop, so there will be no formal classes or instruction. However, traveling with Nevada and a group of enthusiastic photographers, I expect to learn quite a bit on the trip.

Carol would have signed on for the trip, too, but there was only one space available, so she became #1 on the waiting list four months ago, but nobody dropped out. As it turns out, she’s had pain in her hip and leg, so the trip would not have been a good idea, anyway. She’s meeting me in Miami at the end of the trip, where we’ll spend a weekend with good college friends.

I take an afternoon flight down to Miami, and shuttle over to Marriott Courtyard for an 8 PM briefing meeting with our group. Ironically, one of the people on the trip had developed severe back pain at the last minute and could not make the trip. Had we known earlier, Carol could have joined us. Damn. Most of the group retired to the bar for some drinks and food, but we disbanded by 10, because of our early start tomorrow. Seems like a very amicable group, all of whom have traveled with Nevada, some many times.


Well, I don’t leave until April 25 (actually, the 26th for Cuba), but I thought you’d better start getting ready. For starters, here’s a map.


Notice a few things. If you never knew where Gitmo, much in the news, was, now you do, Southeast tip, almost as far as you can get from Havana. Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, both much smaller than Cuba (which is the largest island in the West Indies, about the size of Pennsylvania) are tucked to the South. Although you can’t tell from this map, Cuba is 90 miles South of Florida. And, gee, Cuba has its own little group of islands, including Isla de la Juventud. Of Cuba’s 11 million people, 2.1 million live in Havana.

And now, friends, a bit of (quite biased) history, edited very slightly by me, courtesy of infoplease. I apologize for the low brow source, but it’s really very convenient.

Arawak (or Taino) Indians inhabiting Cuba when Columbus landed on the island in 1492 died from diseases brought by sailors and settlers. By 1511, Spaniards under Diego Velásquez had established settlements. Havana’s superb harbor made it a common transit point to and from Spain.

In the early 1800s, Cuba’s sugarcane industry boomed, requiring massive numbers of black slaves. A simmering independence movement turned into open warfare from 1867 to 1878. Slavery was abolished in 1886. In 1895, the poet José Marti led the struggle that finally ended Spanish rule, thanks largely to U.S. intervention in 1898 after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.

An 1899 treaty made Cuba an independent republic under U.S. protection. The U.S. occupation, which ended in 1902, suppressed yellow fever and brought large American investments. The 1901 Platt Amendment allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuba’s affairs, which it did four times from 1906 to 1920. Cuba terminated the amendment in 1934.

In 1933, a group of army officers, including army sergeant Fulgencio Batista, overthrew President Gerardo Machado. Batista became president in 1940, running a corrupt police state.

In 1956, Fidel Castro launched a revolution from his camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro’s brother Raul and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, an Argentine physician, were his top lieutenants. The U.S. ended military aid to Cuba in 1958, and on New Year’s Day 1959, Batista fled into exile and Castro took over the government.

The U.S. initially welcomed what looked like a democratic Cuba, but within a few months, Castro established military tribunals for political opponents and jailed hundreds. Castro disavowed Cuba’s 1952 military pact with the U.S., confiscated U.S. assets, and established Soviet-style collective farms. The U.S. broke relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, and Castro formalized his alliance with the Soviet Union. Thousands of Cubans fled the country.

In 1961, a U.S.-backed group of Cuban exiles invaded Cuba. Planned during the Eisenhower administration, the invasion was given the go-ahead by President John Kennedy, although he refused to give U.S. air support. The landing at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was a fiasco. The invaders did not receive popular Cuban support and were easily repulsed by the Cuban military.

A Soviet attempt to install medium-range missiles in Cuba—capable of striking targets in the United States with nuclear warheads—provoked a crisis in 1962. Denouncing the Soviets for “deliberate deception,” President Kennedy promised a U.S. blockade of Cuba to stop the missile delivery. Six days later, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missile sites dismantled and returned to the USSR in return for a U.S. pledge not to attack Cuba.

The U.S. established limited diplomatic ties with Cuba on Sept. 1, 1977, making it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the island. Contact with the more affluent Cuban Americans prompted a wave of discontent in Cuba, producing a flood of asylum seekers. In response, Castro opened the port of Mariel to a “freedom flotilla” of boats from the U.S., allowing 125,000 to flee to Miami. After the refugees arrived, it was discovered that their ranks were swelled with prisoners, mental patients, homosexuals, and others unwanted by the Cuban government.

Russian aid, which had long supported Cuba’s failing economy, ended when Communism collapsed in eastern Europe in 1990. Cuba’s foreign trade also plummeted, producing a severe economic crisis. In 1993, Castro permitted limited private enterprise, allowed Cubans to possess convertible currencies, and encouraged foreign investment in its tourist industry. In March 1996, the U.S. tightened its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act.

In early 2003, Castro sent nearly 80 dissidents to prison with long sentences, prompting an international condemnation of Cuba’s harsh supression of human rights.

The Bush administration again tightened its embargo in June 2004, allowing Cuban Americans to return to the island only once every three years (instead of every year) and restricting the amount of U.S. cash that can be spent there to $50 per day. In response, Cuba banned the use of dollars, which had been legal currency in the country for more than a decade.

In July 2006, Castro—hospitalized because of an illness—temporarily turned over power to his brother Raúl and in Feb. 2008, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro ended 49 years of power when he announced his retirement. Raúl succeeded his brother.

The U.S. Congress voted in March 2009 to repeal the long-standing restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Havana and sending money into the country. President Obama has signaled a willingness to establish warmer ties with Cuba, a subtle acknowledgement that isolation has not been effective in forcing the Castro regime from power.

On April 19, 2011, Cuba made the most significant change to its leadership in over 50 years, by appointing José Ramón Machado to fill the second-highest position in the Communist Party. It was the first time since the 1959 revolution that someone other than the Castro brothers has been named to the position.

In late 2011, buying and selling cars became legal, Cubans were allowed to go into business for themselves in a variety of approved jobs, from accounting to food vendors, real estate could be bought and sold for the first time since the days immediately following the revolution and the government pardoned more than 2,900 prisoners.

All’s Well, Even if it Ends Lousy; Reflections on Myanmar

January 29-30

We get a 3:45 AM FaceTime call from Phoebe. As reception is spotty, the call is short, but welcome. Hillary and driver drop us at the airport for our 1 1/4 hour flight to Bangkok.
Okay, so here’s a short summary of what the final entry was supposed to be. Met at the Hong Kong airport by our private car and whisked to the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel, one of the best in the world. A few hours to soak up a bit of Hong Kong’s atmosphere before going to the China Club, a private club that the concierge at the Four Seasons has arranged for us to have dinner at on the recommendation of a “foodie” relative of our travel agent in Chicago. Amazing meal and an opportunity to see a tea ceremony and pancake making. Back to our spacious, elegantly appointed room for a good night’s sleep prior to our car to the airport the next morning. It was to be a big splurge at the end of the trip, the details of which had been arranged for months.

And here’s what actually happened. About half way to Bangkok, Carol and I both begin not to feel well, and, by the time we hit Bangkok, we (especially me) feel really, really lousy. I’ll spare you the details of multiple vomiting and diarrhea, but let’s just say that it was neither fun nor pretty. We go via wheel chair, because I’m feeling weak, to see a doctor at the airport, who recommends that I go to a hospital in Bangkok. We decline, but permit him to give me a shot for nausea and other medication for dehydration and diarrhea.

There is no possible way I can get on a plane at this point, so we wind up spending about seven hours in the Cathay Pacific lounge in Bangkok, where we are extremely well looked after. A return visit to the doctor, and he signs a letter saying I’m okay to fly. Feeling better, but still happy to have a wheel chair to be transported around in, we take an evening flight to Hong Kong. The classy folks at Four Seasons cancel our dinner, car and room reservations, arrange for a hotel room at an airport Marriott and say that they hope that I feel better. In Hong Kong, we are met and I’m transported by a wheel chair to collect our luggage and take a shuttle bus (not a private car) to the Marriott, which is new, and more than adequate for our needs (it has a bed; two, actually, and free wifi, because I’m a Marriott Rewards member). Good night’s sleep and feel much better, but there’s no way I’m giving up my wheel chair at the Hong Kong airport.

Now aloft and about ten hours from home, a few reflections on our trip. We were so lucky and privileged to experience Myanmar in the way we did, because of Dotty. We definitely skipped some things that tourists would normally do and see, and I’m sure we would have enjoyed some, perhaps most, of that. But there’s no question in my mind that the trade off was more than worth it. We met people and did things that we’ll remember for as long as we’re still in the remembering business.

We saw a country at a unique time in it’s history. (In the International Tribune on the plane, I read an article saying that Myanmar had just revoked the law that prevented Damon from doing a meditation class for more than five people). There’s a sense of some hope, but there’s still a tenuousness to it all. The country seems subdued. Aside from the Indian wedding we crashed, we saw no overt joy. But we were treated with great warmth wherever we went. My sense of uneasiness is the degree to which the country’s hope depends on one person, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. If she prevails in the 2015 elections, it may be possible to create an infrastructure that survives her. Perhaps the barn door is already unlocked. But nobody appears to be giddy at this point. And there’s a strong historical basis for that lack of giddiness.

Carol and I will undoubtedly remain in touch with Myanmar. There’s Dotty and Jim, for starters. And we hope to correspond with others we met, as well. Most hopefully, we expect to host our two wonderful young guides and travel companions, Hillary and Aung Lin Htet, when they come to the US for studies, which we hope will happen later this year. And we now have an even stronger foundation for our relationship with Arkar Hein at Nothwestern, having seen some of his country and met his family.

Art, Holocaust Remembrance and Return to Shwedagon

January 28

Breakfast, then off to a place near where Hillary lives to see and photograph monks going for alms. A bell/chime heralds their imminent arrival, and they pass by in a couple of minutes., extending their bowls for donations of rice.



Off to the Golden Valley Art Centre, recommended yesterday by Damon and Stacy. Run by Peter and Vicki, they represent 49 artists, all but a handful of whom are from Myanmar. Included among the artists are a son, daughter-in-law, son-in-law and 10-year old granddaughter of Peter and Vicki’s. They go out with groups of about twenty artists to paint on site in various Myanmar locales, and just yesterday returned from Bagan. We like a lot of the work and also like Peter and Vicki (pictured below). Wind up buying a small still life by the painter who Damon and Stacy have collected some twenty pieces of.


Drive to Yangon University, where Sammy Samuels had informed us there would be a Holocaust Memorial Service. There’s a large turnout, primarily of students, and the program consists of speeches, a poem recital, a Yizkor prayer led by Sammy and a moving short movie about a Polish boy who was raised in an orphanage in Warsaw. Sammy introduces us to various dignitaries, including the Israeli ambassador, the head of the UN in Myanmar and, most helpfully, the young man who is the new cultural affairs person for the US Embassy, Erik V.E. Eisele, who we introduce to Hillary and tell he must get in touch with Dotty. This could prove a very useful contact for Dotty, for Hillary and for Erik. We say goodbye to Sammy, who says we should stay in touch.


Quick lunch before we visit an NGO called Myanmar Egress, which is engaged on training people in areas such as social entrepreneurship, leadership, mass communication and other related areas. What’s rather amazing is that they were allowed to exist under the military dictatorship. They were closely monitored, though, but now seem to be enjoying newfound opportunities. Among the training they are now doing is English language work for the Myanmar police forces. We meet several of the people involved and look in on a couple classes. To be honest, though, we do not emerge with a very clear notion of what they are about. The program manager with whom we met is to send us an overall description in English.

Back to the hotel for rest and preliminary packing. Return visit to Shwedagon Pagoda for a farewell sunset. This spectacular, spacious pagoda is both an attraction for tourists and an active site of worship for Buddhists. The central spire rises more than 300 feet and is encrusted with nearly 8,000 diamonds, rubies, sapphires, topaz, and capped by a 76-carat diamond. Volunteers clean the floors daily on the day of the week on which they are born. Altars for each day of the week, two for Wednesday, ring the central area. The pagoda is gilted over each year with donations from worshipers. Thiri, our travel agent, joins us and acts as our tour guide. Crowded, but oddly peacefu, Shwedagon is a fitting end to our stay in Myanmar.





Thiri and Hillary join us for a delicious dinner at the Governor’s Residence and we retire, awaiting a 4 AM wake-up call.

Ferries, Trishaws and Visions for the Future

January 27

After breakfast at the hotel, we head for a return visit to U Hla Win’s gallery, but, as we are early, we walk through a market near Hillary’s apartment. It’s nice to see a market at which there are no tourists, though Hillary indicates that this is a market frequented by richer people, who drive there.



We spend another hour with U Hla Win, who enthusiastically shows us around again. There is a watercolor that both Carol and I like, and we’re mulling it over. May depend on whether U Hla Win is prepared to move off of his “fixed price.”

We head down to the jetty to take a huge ferry over to Dalla, a fifteen minute ride. For foreigners, the ride is two dollars each way. For the working class folks who commute to Yangon daily, the ride costs 4 cents, each way. Hordes of people walk onto the boat, ranging from monks to people in ordinary dress to some who are dressed to the nines (for reasons we will later discover). Vendors on board hawk everything from watermelon to cigarettes to shirts to trinkets (including a plastic snake we purchase for Jasper). It is quite a scene.


On the other side, Hillary and Carol to bargain for two trishaws, bicycles that have a side platform that will sort of fit two people, one facing front and one rear. Carol and Hillary share a trishaw.


Our drivers pedal us around town, stopping at a modern pagoda that looks a bit like an amusement park, which houses both Buddhas and nats, and then at a Christian orphanage, where a service with lively music is taking place. The orphanage houses 17 kids, including the five children of the man who runs it and his wife. We leave a donation and move on.



We pass a spot where Hillary says a wedding is going on. When I ask whether we are invited, Hillary asks if we’d like to go, and I say, “of course.” We are welcomed warmly and invited to eat (we decline). It is an Indian-style wedding, and this being the fourth of these that I have crashed (the other three on three different trips to India), I am now entirely comfortable pushing to the front, taking photos and greeting family members. It’s a festive affair with a loud band and a distinctly non-traditional dance by a young Indian woman. This solves the mystery of the fancy dresses on the ferry.



We ferry back and drive to a spot for lunch, before moving on to the home of Damon and Stacy Zumbroegel, friends of Dotty, and our connection in getting to U Hla Win. Damon was a very successful architect in San Francisco and has had a long-standing interest in the Far East. He’s been coming to Yangon for nine years and moved here two years ago, Stacy and their two small daughters joining them a year ago. He has retired from his architectural practice in the US, which has spawned half a dozen other successful practices, since he left. I’d say he’s about fifty.

Damon thinks that the dramatic changes we’ve seen recently have been in the works for years, and decided to come here before any of it surfaced. A couple of years ago, when he and Dotty wanted to talk, they had to do so in a whisper at the back of a coffee shop. two years ago, he could not teach a meditation class, because it would bring more than five people together. the number of ex-pats, which was at about 200 a year ago has swelled to around 2000. He is certain that Daw Aung San Su Kyi will be elected president. She is, he says, “the real deal.”

Damon is completely unabashed in talking about the for-profit opportunities in Myanmar, and plans to establish a unique brand of hospitality-based operations around the country. He will use these as a base for sustainable growth to provide all the necessities of food, clothing, medical and shelter through a non-profit entity or entities he is creating. Damon has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. He calls his project Vihara, and subtitles it “sustainable hospitality in a peaceful abode.” At this point, he has half a dozen Americans and about ten Burmese working for him. His initial developments will be outside Yangon and in Bagan, where he has already acquired land. He’s to send me details, and I hope that we will stay in touch.

We returned to our hotel for a few hours of rest and blogging. Hillary picked us up and took us downtown to an Indian storefront restaurant, with waiters and staff shouting back and forth at each other. Our dinner was nicely-paced as we were done in roughly 22 minutes, at which time I paid our $5 tab (no tip necessary). I decided to save the goat’s brains with rice dish for our next visit, though it certainly was tempting.

Beer and snacks back in the very peaceful hotel bar, before retiring for the night.

Horse Carts and Farewell to a Magical City

January 26

Picked up at hotel at 7 AM for a horse cart ride. We’d resisted the obligatory horse- and ox-cart rides until now, but decided that they were in fact obligatory. Did not see monks lined up for alms, as we’d hoped to, because our timing was off. But the slow ride among some of the non-famous pagodas in the chilly (sweater and jacket) early morning light is rewarding. One does see a distressing amount of trash this way, however. Above us the balloons we rode in a couple days ago glide over the pagodas. The horse cart ride provides glimpses of life that you don’t see from a car. Stop briefly at Ananda Pagoda, with the huge standing Buddhas. The place is jumping with people coming for full moon day of the festival, with processions of the faithful arriving with gifts. Return to the hotel after an hour, glad that we’d opted for the horse cart experience.

After breakfast, I wander down by the river and am able to photograph people in their huts by the water, because I know the secret word, “mingalaba,” hello.






Back at the hotel, we read, blog, begin to pack and get ready for lunch with Dee Dee. Sit out on our balcony overlooking the river.

We take a taxi through the crowded town to Sunset Garden Restaurant, which is managed by Dee Dee’s father U Min Min Aung. Several tour buses attest to the restaurant’s popularity. Dee Dee comes running out to the parking lot to greet us and takes us to the best table, which has been reserved for us, overlooking the Irrawady. Her father and mother, Daw Khin Lay Win, who Dee Dee looks like, come over to greet us, as does her husband, who is there with people he is guiding. Dee Dee has ordered a large lunch for us, and leaves us alone to eat, as she says she had a late breakfast. We are not allowed to pay and, in fact, Daw Khin Lay Win gives us gifts of hair clips for all three granddaughters. We say goodbye to everyone, taking Dee Dee’s email address so that we can stay in touch, and leaving a CD of American music as a gift.

Our taxi driver has waited at the restaurant to drive us back to the hotel, where we have two hours before leaving for the airport, and one before we need to vacate our room. Uneventful ride to and wait at the airport, and somehow half the nation of Japan manages to board our hour and a quarter flight to Yangon (which takes off 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure), once again on the airline on which elephants fly.


We are sad to leave Bagan, which has a magical quality to it. We know of no other city remotely like it. Imagine an American city with lovely and distinctive 1000-year old, spiritual Starbucks sprinkled liberally around. No, on second thought, don’t. The only city we’ve visited that comes to mind as having something of Bagan’s magical quality is Venice.

Arrive in Yangon on schedule and Hilary meets us and rides to the Governor’s Residence. She has never seen the place, except from the outside, and seems quite blown away by the elegance of the property and our room. She is a “foody” and takes photos of each course. It’s fun for Carol and me to see her enthusiastic response to dinner.

Close Shaves and Alms

January 25

After buffet breakfast, we are picked up by Dee Dee and driver and we head to the market at Nyaungoo. This is the largest market in Bagan and is more interesting than the one we went to a couple days ago, catering more to locals, less to tourists. That does not mean that there are not tourists around, but there are fewer spots aimed at them. Most places we go have street people selling postcards, copies of George Orwell’s book on Burma, hand drawn pictures by children and other things. And, while there are occasional beggars, begging is not widespread. As we weave around the market we see many nuns walking through, receiving alms in their bowls from people. This is not considered a form of begging, but the obligation of people to support.






We go to visit two more temples. The first, Sulamani Temple, was built in the 12th century and has murals done in the 18th century.

The second, Dhamriayangyi, is the largest in Bagan and looks something like a pyramid. It has particularly fine brickwork; one can’t fit a pin between the bricks. It was built from 1163-65 by King Marthu. Like most of the buildings, the temple was damaged in the earthquake of 1975 and has been restored.

At this point, we are about temple/pagodaed out. In part this is because Dee Dee is not a fount of information about these places. She is as much a companion, and a delightful one, as a guide. To be fair, though, even if she were a fount, there’s a limit to what we can/wish to absorb. I’m certain that Dotty’s friend knows infinitely more, but, since we might well not have understood what he had to say, I think we’re a lot better off with Dee Dee.

En route to the Lawkananda Monastery, we encounter another group of young monk and nun initiates on horse back, and get out of the car to follow them a ways.




At the monastery, we see monks having their heads shaved and bathing. They line up for lunch with their bowls, local volunteers dump rice into the bowls as the monks pass and then they sit down on the ground at circular tables to eat in complete silence. A great treat for us and, surprisingly, except for one other couple that arrives mid-meal, we are the only visitors.







We drive to a lacquer store that the Feldmans had recommended, but don’t like either the work or the prices as much as the place we stopped yesterday, Mya Thit Sar, so we make a return visit. After considerable back and forthing, Carol makes a deal for ten very attractive bowls, each different, and negotiates a third off of the price, rather than the 5% discount the owner offered at first.

From there, we drive to Phwarsaw Village, where there are no other visitors. In fact, there are almost no other people, as most have gone to Bagan for the festival. Still, it’s interesting to walk around and see how people live. Most have bamboo dwellings, but “the rich people” as Dee Dee calls them, have plaster dwellings and water. We meet and talk with a few people, then have lunch served to us under a tamarind tree, with men fanning away the flies. It’s a special arrangement that Thiri has made for us. At lunch, we see Dee Dee’s wedding picture album, which she has brought at our request. She looks beautiful, but incredibly serious, in most of the photos. Several photos in the album are of Dee Dee and her husband with tourists who happened in on the wedding. I’m sure that Carol and I play similar roles in weddings in India.



Back to the hotel for rest, blogging and picture downloading. We confirm tomorrow’s flight, arrange for a late check out and wait in the lobby for Dee Dee to drive us the very short distance to the river below our hotel where we have a private boat that takes us out to see the sunset. Talking to Dee Dee, we learn that her father manages a popular restaurant on the river, and her mother runs a souvenir shop there. At our request, Dee Dee says that she will meet us for lunch at the restaurant tomorrow.

We return to the hotel to clean up, having decided to eat at the hotel again tonight. Spring rolls and apple crumble again.

Little Nuns on Horses and Mingalaba Friends

January 24

Good buffet breakfast at hotel and we meet our guide Dee Dee in the lobby. Dee Dee is diminutive, twenty three, a guide for three months and married a month ago. Her passable English and lack of seasoning are forgiven because she is beautiful and has a smile that lights up the place for miles around.


En route to Mt. Popa, we stop to see how palm oil, palm sugar and palm liquor are produced. An ox grinds peanuts as he walks around in a circle to create peanut oil. I ride behind, but Carol passes in favor of feeding him. We watch a man climb a ladder attached to a tree with two pots attached to his belt, cut off part of a high branch and replace two full pots of palm sap with the empty ones he’s carried up. After, we see the liquor being boiled from the sap and taste some of the strong liquor and the delicious, sweet sugar candy.




In a fortuitous happening, sure to be a trip highlight, we encounter young girls dressed in bright costumes being placed on horses for a procession that will lead to their ordination as nuns later in the day. Their parents are comforting them and a large crowd has gathered to listen to raucous music in a nearby pavilion.






On to Mt. Popa, where we decide to have a go at climbing the stairs to the top, some 777 of them. I think that I can best sum this experience up by saying that 777 is a fuckin’ lotta stairs. Along the way, we see a room with a line of 37 nats, or spirits. Before Buddhism, people believed that these spirits controlled their lives. Some still believe that, and some Buddhists who do not believe it still pray to the nats, just in case.

We rest a number of times on the way up. Pesky monkeys line the steps and are shooed away by a couple guys yelling and firing stones from sling shots at them. At the top, there’s a pretty view of the surrounding areas, and several shrines the import of which I don’t fully get. The walk down is rather trying as well, and our legs are rubbery.




Drive to Mt. Popa Lodge, with a lovely view of Mt. Popa. We encounter Sue and Burt, from New Jersey, who we’d seen on our balloon trip, and have a nice chat with them. They are winding up a 37-day trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, and head home tomorrow. They love architecture and have taken all of the architectural tours in Chicago.

We drive to a place that does lacquerware, something that Myanmar is noted for. The owner of the place explains the amazing process in great detail, and we now have a very healthy appreciation for that art. Takes months to execute a piece, and we saw work in various stages of progress. Did not buy anything, though if we’d had room for some wonderful large screens, we’d have been very tempted to splurge.


Returned to see the month-long festival, and this time avoided the Crap R Us area. What we really were interested in seeing, though, were the tented encampments inhabited by people who had come by ox-cart, bicycle and other means to spend a month selling their produce and celebrating the festival. Behind the tents, one can see the magnificent pagodas. We steered Dee Dee in that direction and, pushing her to introduce us to folks, were warmly welcomed into four different tents, and offered peanuts and other things. Our greatest success was when we said, “mingalaba,” which means hello (and which I mispronounced “mandalaba”). This evoked smiles and laughter, and made them happy to have their pictures taken.







Driven back to the hotel, where we cleaned up, blogged, etc, before dinner at the hotel, which was quite good, especially the spring rolls and the apple crumble a la mode, both of which Carol and I shared. Watched a puppet show at the restaurant, then read/blogged in the lobby, before going for the 9:30 massages that Carol had booked for us. They were great, and very cheap at $25, each for an hour.

Red Balloons and Golden Buddhas

January 23

Today was much more of a normal tourist day, as compared to what we’ve been doing on this trip. And that’s not so bad, because, after all, we are tourists.

Picked up at 5:45 by Balloons Over Bagan and bused to the take-off site, where we are served coffee and biscuits. We are broken down into groups of sixteen and given a brief lecture on procedure. Our group of sixteen moves on behind the limp balloon, lying on the ground and receives a safety lecture. Watching the balloon fill with air, first cold and then blasts of hot, is quite exciting. When it is filled, we circle to our positions and climb into the basket.


Not long after, we’re aloft and floating towards and over some of Bagan’s 3000 pagodas. Our pilot points out some of the more distinctive structures, but it’s the overall scene which is quite spectacular. Many pictures are taken, including some of the group from a camera tied to the balloon ropes. The pilot can control the height and speed of our, but the wind controls the direction. He jokes that he thinks will blow us over the pagoda area, but that otherwise, we’ll be in the river. After about an hour, we drift down to an easy landing in an open field. We climb out of the basket and are offered champagne and snacks, as well as an opportunity to buy a cd of photos of us taken on the balloon. (I do, of course.) We are then bused back to our hotels–a very,neat, professional and well-thought out operation.



Carol and I are picked up by our guide, Ko Ko, and driver. Ko Ko proves to be an excellent guide, nice manner, good English and an appropriate sense of how much detail we can absorb. He gives us some general background about the six types of buildings/structures–pagodas, temples, monasteries, caves, libraries and ordination centers. And, early on, he describes the four main poses of Buddhas we’ll see–don’t worry, middle way, witnessing and traveling. He talks about Buddha’s first sermon, the five disciples who followed him, his teachings (darma) and those who follow him (sanga).

King Anawradha brought Buddhism to Bagan in 1057, ruled from 1044-1077 and built the first pagoda we see, Shwezigon Pagoda, which has a massive, gold-gilded dome and reputedly houses a tooth, collarbone and frontlet of the Buddha. We spend some time walking around it.



We walk through the Manisithu market, which I would say is an authentic tourist market. It combines fish and vegetables, clearly sold to locals, with goods aimed at the considerable number of tourists who wend through the market. Carol buys four bamboo picture frame, which may or may not survive the rest of the trip, for about twelve dollars. Bagan has clearly been “discovered” and tourists are in evidence most places we go. This is hardly surprising, since the wealth of pagodas is stunning and, seen from ground level, makes a nice contrast from the aerial view from the balloon.


Next we visit the Kyan Sither Cave, dedicated to monks by the 44th king of Bagan. The cave contains some wonderful drawings that we view by flashlight; no photos are permitted. The cave was built on a site identified by a white elephant, a powerful figure. We talk with Ko Ko about the meaning of white elephant in our language.

We move on to the Hit Lo Min Lo Temple, built in 1280. The temple is two stories high and known for its plaster carvings on the outside.


Lunch with Ko Ko. Carol instructs the waiter on how to make the grilled cheese sandwich I request. We talk about Ko Ko’s family of nine children. He has been a guide for three years. Took him about a year to complete studies, exams, etc and he now freelances. When I ask whether he guides mainly Brits, Americans or Aussies, he says that he most often guides Asians who do not speak Burmese, but do speak English.

After lunch, we go to the Ananda Pagoda, the masterpiece of Mon architecture, built in 1091 by King Kyan Sither. The ground plan is a perfect Greek cross. There are four huge standing wooden gilted Buddhas. The two originals stand 31feet high and their faces appear to be serious (for the king) when up close and smile from afar (on the people).


Through phone calls with our Yangon travel agency, we are able to line up a guide for the next two days, to replace Dotty’s friend, whose English probably would have driven us nuts. We walk through what we thought was the festival area (but later found out that there was another one), which had many booths that could be grouped under the corporate name Crap R Us. We do not spend long.

After cooling off and cleaning up for a couple hours, Ko Ko picks us up and takes us to the Shwe San Daw Pagoda, THE place to see sunsets. We climb four stories of very steep stone steps and muscle our way around for a very lovely view of the pagodas at sunset. The way down is only slightly less difficulty (Carol would say more difficult).





We ask Ko Ko to drop us off at the upscale resort that Bonnie and Tim are staying at and immediately encounter Bonnie in the lounge on her iPad. We arrange to have dinner with them outside on the large deck, and have a laughter-filled evening with our new Brit friends. They say that Carol and I must visit Sri Lanka. We say goodnight and promise to stay in touch.

Trying to walk back to our hotel, we get lost (Carol’s fault, of course), so we walk straight back to the hotel from whence we came and get them to order us a taxi. We are rather bushed and go right to bed.

Slow Boat(s) to Bagan

January 22

Picked up at 5:45 (having again been awaken at 5:10 by chanting, no alarm clock needed). At first, there is some difficulty/confusion trying to find the boat, but we locate it. We say goodbye to our excellent driver and guides, Zo Win and Aung Lin Htet. We give Zo Win a tip and give each of them a lucky $2 bill. We will stay in touch with Aung Lin Htet, and, we hope, host him in the US. Dorothy has suggested that we might write letters of recommendation about Aung Lin Htet, and we’ve said that we’d happily do that.

Walking down a steep hill and up a gangplank, we board the RV Vandabo, a boat with what looks to be a capacity of about 25. It appears that it’s just us and a large group of Germans, which does not excite us. We soon find out that the Germans are Danish, though, and we strike up a conversation with a very friendly former SAS employee named Adda. We later discover that there is also a British couple on board, and some Swiss.

The ship is wooden and quite new. We’d switched to it on Joe Feldman’s recommendation. Before embarking, we watch a group of natives exercising in unison to the leader’s call on the river bank. At first, it’s very chilly, as the sun rises, but we’re dressed for the occasion, having been warned by the Feldmans. The scenery combines barges with pagodas on the shore.




The Danish group is quite friendly, and we talk a lot to Tim and Bonnie, from London, who have traveled very extensively and built a home on the coast of Kenya, near Lambu. Tim was born in Uganda and is a sculptor. Our travel agent did not book lunch for us, which is fine, both because we’re not hungry and because we’re told that the lunch was lousy.

We stop for about an hour at a village called Vandabo, which appears to have quite a thriving business making pottery, on a scale very far beyond the village we visited yesterday. Adda kindly translates what the Danish guide is saying. Many good children photo ops, and a pleasant interlude from the boat. Download photos when we return to boat and get the blog up to date.







Enjoyable ride down the river with boat and shore scenes, the weather changing from hot and sunny to pleasant to chilly as the sun sets, completing the sunrise to sunset day.




At 6:15, we are about half an hour from port, when we run aground on a sandbar. Futile efforts to get loose, free rum sours to calm the passengers and finally they send for four boats to come out, three for the passengers and one for the luggage. Much laughter with Tim and Bonnie, the English couple. Bonnie is upset about not getting to the great hotel they’ve booked and missing their scheduled massages and dinner. I get somebody to call U Thein Tun Oo, Dorothy’s friend who is waiting for us at the jetty. He has already learned what has happened and says, no problem, he’ll wait.

When the boats arrive, Bonnie pushes her way to the front and instead of their loading three boats with people and a fourth with luggage, she convinces them to load the four of us with all of the luggage into the motor boat first. The motor boat ride is slow, lasting forty-five minutes, but the conversation with Bonnie and Tim is hilarious. We finally arrive at the jetty at 10:15 and are met by U Thein Tun Oo and driver. The former is nice, but extremely difficult to understand. He tells us that something has come up so that he can’t be with us tomorrow, but another guide has been arranged.

We check in to a very nice hotel, the Aye Yar River View Resort, and are informed that we will be picked up at 5:45 for our balloon ride tomorrow morning. We go up to the room and shower. I blog and shoot off an email to Dotty, telling her my concern about our being guided for three days by U Thein Tun Oo, given the level of his English, and asking whether anything might be done about that.

Tailed Through the Villages

January 21

(Note: If you read the January 20 post without photos, you may wish to look back at them. Because of lack of Internet connections, I’ve been unable to post for several days, so you may see three or four posts at once. Sorry about that.)

Chanting awakens us again, just after five (having gone to sleep again after the 3AM dog barking), but as we were to do an early tour of the market and port, we did not mind. After breakfast, though, Aung Lin Htet gives us the disappointing news that there’s no market today. So, after checking emails at Aung Lin Htet’s and unsuccessfully trying to load photos to the blog, we pick up Nai to head for the villages.

Watching the city and area wake up is interesting–monks in vermillion robes carrying their alms baskets, small buses jammed full of people, hordes and hordes of motorbikes, cars, bicycles and, as we leave the city, increasingly horse and ox-drawn carts. Aung Lin Htet explains that monks have certain places they return to for alms, typically cooked rice. Nuns, in pink robes, travel in a line as a group and bring their raw rice back to the monastery to be cooked.


Part of our trip is along a toll highway, but eventually, we leave that and drive on narrow, badly-paved roads. Unfortunately, this post is going to be a whole lot sketchier than it should be because I just inadvertently erased all of the notes I’d written in my iPad yesterday. Shit. So, I’ll write this without the names of villages and people (which you may not care about anyway) and add those back at a later time.

The land we pass through is arid, farmable only in the June-October rainy season. During other parts of the year, many people move to other areas to find work.

Our first stop is at a monastery school that houses some 430 students, age four to sixteen. The government recognizes, but does not support, the school. Recognition makes it possible to transfer schools, to take government tests and to gain the necessary credit for university.

We are ushered into a large room, where we meet the head monk, a man of about fifty. He has significantly expanded the school during his tenure there. (Later, we see young people he has hired making brick blocks by hand and a large line of thousands of them, which will be used for future building.).A large tray of food is brought out for us, as we sit asking the monk questions. We tour the school buildings where we see/hear students reciting their lessons in unison, aloud. The students seem somewhat uncomfortable with our presence. There is none of the animation, laughing and horse play that we typically encounter in Ghana. In one of the older classrooms, students are working on computers.



We drive from there to Nai’s home in the village. It is a nice, clean home, with a flat screen TV. We’re served lunch by Nai’s mother, a very nice-looking woman who looks perhaps half her age; she could be his sister. Nai has invited a friend who works for the NLD in a nearby village and a young woman who works in a library that Nai supports. Neither speaks English. Nai and Aung Lin Htet are pictured below.



Nai lives in this home, not in Mandalay, as we had thought. It turns out that, while he spends about six hours a day on NLD work, he is not paid for it. He has an internet store that he runs for money. Nai’s mother has a gold and jewelry store nearby. His father died 17 years ago, when Nai was ten. It’s very unusual for somebody from a village like Nai’s to have attended PCP in Yangon.

After lunch, we drive to another, smaller monastery school, which has about 80 students, about a quarter of whom have no parents and live at the monastery. Again we meet with the head monk and again are offered food. We do a brief tour of the school, which includes a class of very cute pre-schoolers. As with the other school, the government provides no support to the school.


By now we are traveling on bumpy dirt roads, quite like those we need to traverse in Ghana, and arrive at a farming village, that also produces ceramic ware and baskets for the area. We sit in a shaded area and hear about and see the cigar-making that they do by hand. In a day, a person can make 800-1000 cigars and is paid about a dollar a day for their work. The land and operation is owned by people outside the village, and workers do not share in any of the profits. A good part of the village of 1500 has gathered to watch us and listen to our discussions. Clearly, we’re the biggest thing to hit town in a long time. People are friendly and smiley, but many are shy about having their pictures taken.


After we finish talking about the cigars, we are driven a short distance to see first the basket making, which is done by a small group of people who cut, strip, soak, bend and weave the smoothed, thin strips of palm bark into baskets. Next, we drive a short way to where dirt brought from other parts is made into mud, and in a process of many steps, is dried several times, put into piles, and molded into pots. Along the way, Imperfect vessels are discarded.



We drive past some quite nice houses, very different from the thatched village houses, which Nai explains are owned by local people who have to work in other countries to afford and support the homes. We stop at Nai’s mother’s very nice jewelry store to say goodbye and for a bathroom stop.


We drive on to another village, where petrified wood, found buried in the earth is mined, cut and worked into beads that are sold for jewelry in Mandalay and elsewhere. The final cutting and polishing of the beads is done by young women sitting and bending over in what looks to be incredibly uncomfortable positions to the very loud whirring sound of machines that the women use to do their work. We buy a nice, large band of painted beads for Carol for about six dollars. Probably killed her not to feel that she could bargain.



Nai is staying in his village, so we say goodbye to him here, thanking him for all of his efforts in setting up meetings for us. We give him some money for the NLD, which he says he will use to support the education we have seen, since foreigners are not allowed to contribute to the NLD. We also give him seventy dollars to contribute to the environmental activists/former political prisoners with whom we met, which we have calculated will be dues for Carol and me for five years. Nai says he will confirm by email how the money has been used.

As we drive away from this village, Aung Lin Htet tells us that we have been followed by police, ever since our meetings with the NLD and the former prisoners. They have questioned our driver, Zo Win, about us in several places. Nai is currently talking to the police, telling them if they have any questions, to ask him. I joke with Carol that we may soon be former political prisoners ourselves, but that I won’t mind, as long as they allow me to blog.

We drive back to Mandalay, arriving in rush hour. We stop to change some money and, after a short spell at the hotel, are picked up for dinner with Aung Lin Htet at a European restaurant called the Koffee Kaffe. Back to the hotel by nine to pack for our early departure to Bagan tomorrow.

Golden Buddhas and Puppetry

January 20

Awaken early to chanting outside. Breakfast on top floor of hotel. Picked up at 8:30 and stop by Aung Lin Htet’s house for wifi connection to check emails.

Stop by place where gold is being hammered by hand in order to make thin sheets for gold leafing.

From here we drive to Mahar Myat Mu Ni, Myanmar’s second holiest pilgrimage site, which houses a 4-metre high Buddha statue, made of gold and decorated with precious jewels. The image was brought from Rakhine State, southeast of Mandalay. People file by (men only) and leave small sheets of gold leaf to be added to the Buddha.




We also see a parade of small children being celebrated as new monks and nuns. It turns out that the cute little girls in yellow are little boy monks, adorned as if they were small kings.



This pagoda also houses bronze statues won as war booty. People, often carrying small children, file by these statues, rubbing the statues and touching themselves, believing that various body parts will be healed through this ritual.




From the pagoda, we drive to the home of Dr. U Tin Maung Kyi, a former urologist, with wide interests including puppetry, cartooning, cultural history of Burma and archeology. He has written on a wide range of subjects and lectured in other countries, including at Brown and Columbia in the US. To say that he is a character would be greatly to understate matters. He regaled us on his many pursuits, showed us a puppet he had designed and made, including the costume (pictured next to him below), and expressed his view that the current government is bluffing and that there could another coup, but at the same time describes Aung San Suu Kyi as “our Moses”. He knows and admires the Moustache Brothers, and either ignored or missed our comments indicating that we thought they were terrible. We were connected to Dr. U Tin Maung Kyi by Aung Lin Htet’s father, who we met later in the day.


Lunched with Aung Lin Htet, then back to the hotel to rest and blog. Picked up at 4PM and drove to Shwenandaw Monastery, which is made entirely out of teak wood with beautiful intricate carvings. It was originally part of the royal palace built by King Mindon and moved to its current location by his son, King Thibaw in the late 19th century. It is the only major building from the original wooden royal palace to have survived the bombing during World War II, and thus is the only authentic part of the royal palace which can still be seen today.


We drove by, but did not stop at, the Kuthodaw Paya, site of the world’s largest book. Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill and built by King Mingdon in the 1800s, 729 white stupas within the complex contain the complete text of the Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. We continued on to Mandalay Hill a 230-metre hill located near Mandalay. Along its path are several monasteries and temples. We enjoyed the view and a nice, but not spectacular, sunset over the Irawaddy River.


Waited in a long line for the small, slow elevator down, then continued on to dinner outside at a Chinese/Thai restaurant. There we met Aung Gyi and Daw Julie, Aung Lin Htet’s parents. He is an internist who will retire next month and continue writing essays and poetry. Daw Julie worked as a nurse before her three daughters and son were born. Their youngest daughter is a PCP grad, currently studying in New Hampshire, and the second daughter, who joined us at dinner, will begin a 3-month course to study for medical exams in Melbourne in May. Aung Gyi is Buddhist and Daw Julie, Christian. Each wanted Aung Lin Htet to be raised in their religion; he opted, in his general non-conformist and critical way, to follow neither.

Aung Gyi drove us back the short distance to our hotel, where Carol and I went up to the roof for a beer and nuts, and a traditional puppet show, before retiring.

Politics and Political Prisoners

January 19

Up at 4:15 for 5 AM ride to airport for 6:30 flight to Mandalay. Quick breakfast at hotel.

Easy ride to airport, where the domestic terminal looks right out of the 50’s. Security and baggage check are handled very efficiently. We board the Yangon Airways prop plane, which bears an insignia of an elephant with wings on its tail, raising the suggestion in our minds that this baby may take off only when elephants can fly.

Today’s quiz question, answer at end of this post. Who wrote:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’ fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China

‘crost the Bay!

Apparently, elephants do fly. And offer advertisements on their overhead bins, outdoing us in commercialism.


We drive to our hotel, The Arawady River View, but, as our room is not ready, we proceed to the home of U Khin Maung Sway, retired psychology professor and his wife, Daw Khin Marlar, a retired philosophy professor. There we have a most interesting couple hour talk, over tea and cake served by Daw Khin Marlar.

U Khin Maung Sway was sent to Russia in the sixties by the government and there learned Russian and socialism. Returning, he taught for 26 years in Yangon and Mandalay, before quitting. He sits across from us and speaks very slowly and deliberately. She sits off to the side, on a small stool, barefoot obviously listening, but saying nothing. (We learned on our first day that one takes shoes and socks off in homes and religious places, so I now wear sandals rather than lace walking shoes with socks.)


U Khin Maung Sway has written several books, which he shows us proudly, including the first of what will be two volumes of a biography of Freud and a book on neuropsychology. He has translated books from both Russian and English into Burmese. Before we leave, he gives us and signs about a 25-page English summary of a book on Bagan that he translated first to Russian and then, in this excerpt, to English. He clearly is pleased and proud to give it to us.

From our discussions with U Khin Maung Sway, it’s clear that teaching psychology in Myanmar is a tough gig, certainly not a growth industry. The enrollment in psychology is low, and decreasing. Educational content is governed by the ministry of education, who have no interest in psychology, other than the psychology of warfare, which he taught at one point. Psychological therapy is counter to Burmese culture and beliefs in astrology, shamans and the efficacy of nats (spirits).

When we drew Daw Khin Marlar into the discussion, she was animated and articulate, and much more fluent than her husband. She spoke at length about how the Burmese were not “educated,” able to think for themselves. Until this happens, the country cannot move forward. They both seemed to acknowledge that recent changes are positive, but have no illusions about any quick or short-term change. It will take a long, long time, “but we have to be positive, hopeful.”


Lunch with Aung Lin Htet at a popular restaurant, frequented by a couple large tour groups. Carol and I feel very fortunate to be able to travel alone, with complete flexibility and control. We are joined at lunch by Naing Naing (he introduces himself as “Nie,” a relief to us, who have great difficulty with the Burmese names), a rather recent graduate of PCP, who studied for two years at a Japanese school. Nie works for the NLD, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. He has set up the two meetings we will have later in the day, and will accompany us in two days to visit the rural area from which he comes. While his English is quite good, his accent and speech pattern make him somewhat difficult for Carol and me to understand, so we are happy to have Aung Lin Htet to “translate,”

After lunch, we take a brief walk along the moat, two miles square, that separates what used to be the king’s palace in the 19th century. We then go to check into the Irrawady River View Hotel, at which our room has no river view. The hotel is passable, but a very far cry from the lovely Governor’s Residence.

We drive to the headquarters of the NLD, where pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere and are for sale in the entry office.



Upstairs, we meet for an hour and a half with the chairman of the NLD in the Mandalay Dvision, Daw Win Mya Mya, and U Hla Kaung, an executive committee member of the Mandalay Division of the NLD. Daw Win Mya Mya responds to the many questions that we pepper her with. She is very animated and fluent in her long responses, providing a translation problem for Aung Lin Htet, which he handles commendably.


Three things emerge quite clearly from all of this discussion. First, the overwhelming priority issue is resolution of issues with Myanmar’s ethnic groups, who comprise over 40% of the population. Until that is done, nothing can be accomplished. Particularly acute is the armed conflict in the Northern Myanmar Kachin area. Second. Aung San Suu Kyi is viewed as an almost mythical figure; they are convinced that if she were given authority, all difficulties could be resolved with ethnic people who trust and revere her. Third, the elections in 2015 will be key, and afford an opportunity for real change to occur, if the NLD can gain control, rather than the 10% representation they currently have. (Nie expects to be a candidate in that election.) Once elected, necessary changes in the constitution, which still guarantees the military 25% of the legislative seats, and other reforms can be implemented. The meeting was unusual and informative.


We drive to a small restaurant/coffee shop, where we meet upstairs for almost two hours with five former political prisoners, all of whom are now actively involved in environmental matters. All of them are in their forties and were student activists, part of the generation of ’88, that rebelled against the repressive , military government and paid a heavy price in torture, imprisonment and, for some, death. We learned about how false charges were manufactured against them by a paranoid government that thought that the students had more power or plans than they in fact had. Torture, then imprisonment under harsh conditions–relieved somewhat during periods that the Red Cross was there–and eventual release when the general who spearheaded all of this finally was brought into disrepute.

All of them are also involved with the new generation of student activists. When I suggested that students must respect and look up to them because of what they did, they said simply, “many others gave their lives.” They are remarkably unbitter, focused instead on the future. They are concerned about the psychological state of some of their friends and asked Carol for advice on how to deal with it.

The three principal environmental interests they had focused on all involved actions by China, the construction of a large dam on the Irrawady, destructive copper mining and an oil pipeline. The interests of countries like the US and Japan in controlling China’s influence are potentially useful in building support for the group’s efforts. Thus far, there seems to be only very limited international coordination of efforts.

They ask us about ourselves, and in the process, we discover that one of their group, Maung Tin Thit, is a poet. He is the one that both Carol and I took an immediate liking to because of his, kind and gentle manner of speaking. They all have very limited English, so Nie and Aung Lin Htet translate for us. The former prisoners offer to set up more meetings for us, but our schedule does not permit that. We exchange goodbyes and tell them it has been an honor and privilege to meet with them.


Carol and I go with Aung Lin Htet to a very good Indian dinner at a restaurant that Joe Feldman has recommended at the Hotel on the Red Canal. From there, we go to what was suppose to be a puppet show, but appeared to be a comedy show by the Moustache Brothers, at least one of whom was imprisoned by the military for his comedy. While it’s perhaps harsh to say so, we think his comedy is so bad that he should have been kept incarcerated. After 20 minutes, the three of us get out of our front row seats and leave. The house is packed and everybody else seems to think that the Brothers are hilarious.

We walk around the carnival-like street scene for a short time, then are picked up by a friend of Aung Lin Htet and driven back to our hotel, where we shower and retire immediately.

Answer to quiz question: quoted is the first verse of Mandalay, written by Rudyard Kipling in March or April 1890, at the height of the colonial period, when the British poet was 24 years old.

Kds, Hope and Faith

January 18

Another great buffet breakfast at the hotel, then off to Blossom Nursery School. Thirty or so tots are engaged lovingly and enthusiastically by two young teachers. Many of the children come from disadvantaged families. Hillary, there to observe with us, jumps in fully participating with the young children in a delightful way.






We drive to the offices of Hope International, an NGO engaged in reconciling conflicting groups in trouble areas of Myanmar by humanizing all elements. We are hosted by Maung Hla Thaung, a large man with a loud voice and an animated face with an infectious smile. He is originally (and still) a talented carpenter/wood worker. In a self-effacing way, he talks about work he does in a few small, rural villages in the north of the country. He brings a small number of people in to Yangon for training here on leadership and related matters. He is quite upbeat, suggesting that relations between people there are not as bad as the press portrays them and holding out hope that common ground may be found. Interestingly, he sees little difference in the situation under the new leadership in the country.


We ride with Maung Hla Thaung to a house that he designed for a wealthy friend. He is not a certified architect, but has very strong views on environmentally sound architecture. He is far more concerned with the interior of the house, the floor plan, than the exterior and insists on interviewing all family members about their prospective uses of the house. He will build only utilizing recycled materials. He has designed all of the furniture in the house he takes us to see, as well as the house itself. A portion of the house involving a swimming pool and deck spaces, is quasi-public, open to use by friends of the owner at will and without notification to him. The entire house, including all of the furniture, done of recycled teak and different types of brick is quite spectacular, though the owners will win no neatness awards from House Beautiful. We are convinced to stay for a light lunch, which turns out to be rather elaborate, prepared by servants. We leave without seeing any family members.



We drop off Maung Hla Thaung and drive to Mesmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which under the British in the 19th century had some 2500 members, now down to about 20. We are shown around by Sammy Samuels, a Burmese who lives in New York and runs Shalom Tours to Myanmar. He is an engaging and welcoming young man, who shows us around the Sephardic synagogue, with its two silver-clad torahs. Recent group visits, one including the President of Brandeis last week, have Sammy very energized and he tells us about an event planned at Yangon University on Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan 28, which Carol and I may try to attend. Dotty has joined us at the synagogue and is quite interested in having her students attend. The visit to the synagogue proves far more interesting than I’d anticipated. We say our goodbyes to Dotty, make a contribution to the synagogue and head back to our hotel, where we lounge by the pool, have a drink and try to prepare for a very early departure to Mandalay tomorrow.



Our driver picks us up and drives us to The Strand Hotel, for drinks with Joe and Cathy Feldman, Chicago friends who have been touring Myanmar. Moe’s cousins, Peggy and Gary from Las Vegas, were also in town and came up to the Feldmans’ room for some wine. We then went down to the informal restaurant in The Strand for dinner and to exchange travel stories. The Strand is a good old world hotel, but we are very happy to be staying at the Governor’s Residence to which we returned before 10 PM.

Duck, Duck Goose and Day Care for Elderly Doctors

January 17

Great buffet breakfast eaten outside overlooking the garden at the hotel.

Picked up by Hillary and driver and taken to the Lumbini Academy, a bilingual school for pre-kindergarten through 12-year olds, where students are taught not only English, but to read and write Burmese, which they otherwise would be able only to speak. We are shown around the classes by the administrator of the school and see everything from a pre-K duck, duck goose game




We go on to the house/ gallery of U Hla Win, who spends more than an hour showing us around and talking about his amazing collection of everything, including ancient ceramics, old valuable paintings, artifacts from monasteries, old solid wheels from oxcarts, and the work of modern painters he supports, which bulges from every wall and corner of the attractive old home. U Hla Win used to have a large gallery, but had to close it under the military rule. With the help of an American Buddhist/architect, Damon, he plans to expand his gallery at home and to reopen it to the public rather soon. We are hoping to meet Damon on our return trip to Yangon. U Hla Win used to be a pilot, but developed this passion for art. He is also a novelist and journalist who has been awarded recognition by the government. He’s a good example of Dotty’s efforts to put us in touch with people, even though she has never met him (she knows of him through Damon).

From here we drive a very short distance to Kyaik Kasan, a small pagoda Hilary’s mother goes to. It is fun to walk around this small, active pagoda in contrast to the fabulous, large Shwegadon Pagoda that we saw yesterday. Some 80% of the people in Myanmar (which, by the way, is pronounced, me-ah-ma) are Buddhist.





On the streets we pass, we see many people carrying umbrellas as protection from the sun. People also color their faces with a yellowish powder/paste, called, thanaka, made from wood, which serves both as protection from the sun and as a cosmetic. Stray dogs are both visible and audible. There is no visible sign of the military at all. Hillary has a quick lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant, but Carol and I, who are still full from our large breakfast, have only a drink.

We drive on from lunch to a day care center. What a surprise for Carol and me, who were expecting to see a place for the care of very young children. Instead, we are ushered into a building that houses the Support Group for Elderly Doctors and introduced to it’s 89-year old president, Dr. Myint Myint Khin, a retired gastroenterologist, who in turn introduces us to the group of elderly women doctors and professors, who have just finished their monthly lunch discussion. The organization is the brainchild of Dr. Myint Myint Khin, who says that older people may not always need financial support, but they certainly need the social and moral support that comes from being valued, especially by youth.

Her organization provides moral and physical support for its members, looks after their needs and also produces booklets on a wide range of topics. Dr. Myint Myint Khin is a force, with strong opinions on a wide range of issues that we were treated to in about an hour of private discussion. Surprisingly, we learned that women had long been valued in Burmese society and made up a very significant proportion of prominent members of every group except the military and politics. She attributed this to Buddhist views of equality. She was an outspoken critic of the military who had “incarcerated” the country for fifty years, and had no fear of speaking out, since there was nothing she felt they could do to her that would harm her or her reputation. She is hardly resting on her laurels and aims to extend the benefits for doctors to all elderly people, perhaps using public squares a day a week for the purpose. It would be foolish to bet against Dr. Myint Myint Khin. On anything.


We drove downtown and walked around Independence square, looking at some of the old colonial buildings and seeing the palm readers along the street. Driving on, we passed the Sule Pagoda and saw another Yangon lake. In another area, we parked and Hillary led us on a labyrinthine route, across a bridge through a market area and up some back stairs to a wonderful handmade textile shop called Yoya May, run by Peter, the mother of another Pre-Collegiate Program student, who will begin Carleton College in the Dallas. When we admired a design on a blanket and asked whether she had anything like it in a runner, she promised to have one woven and sent to us via Peter.

Walked back to the car and were driven to Yangon Diplomatic School, which houses Dotty and Jim’s Pre-Collegiate Program (PCP), which they started about ten years ago with a Burmese friend from Yale, who has since died. About 12-15 students are selected for the 17-month program each year from among 30-80 applicants. Students receive training in English and critical thinking. The program has a half-day-a-week service component and after a year, students are place in work internships, often in NGOs. Graduates are placed in universities in the US and Japan. At the school, I talked to a very impressive student, Aung Hein, who graduated from Earlham College, was awarded a Corro Fellowship and is now back teaching at PCP. He plans to teach a course on happiness next year, so I am giving him our copy of Travels with Epidurus and told him about Stumbling on Happiness, a great book by a Harvard psychology professor. We attended a dress rehearsal of three 1-act plays, written and performed by PCP students, which was extremely amateurish.

Drove in heavy traffic to Hillary’s apartment building, which houses some thirty apartments. Hillary has written a very nice paper about what a caring community residents of the building are. Technically, they rent the apartments, paying the government 63 cents a month, but the apartments are salable. Hillary’s mom prepared dinner for us in the small apartment that once housed eleven family members, and now is home to Hillary’s parents, her and her 27-year old brother P.L., who handles travel and other logistics on behalf of NGOs. Her father used to be a seaman, away for three months at a time, and is currently looking for work. Hillary’s grandparents lost a successful restaurant to the military government, and they and all six of her Mother’s brothers died in about a five year period that ended when Hillary was thirteen. Her parents gave us a calendar with monthly photos of Aung San Suu Kyi and we gave them a CD with American music. After a pleasant dinner, we were driven back to the hotel, once again rather exhausted.

Proximity to Pagodas (pun intended)

January 16

Our flight to Yangon is delayed an hour, and we have some difficulty finding Dorothy and Hillary, but if this is our major travel snafu on the trip, we are in very good shape. (I have, and probably will continue to refer to Dorothy as “Dotty,” which is the name friends call her in the US. because of the English influence in Myanmar, though, “dotty” has the connotation of “crazy,” so Dotty goes by Dorothy over here.). A driver and representative of the travel company and Hillary accompany us to our home in Yangon, the Governor’s Residence. This is an absolutely delightful place with gardens, swimming pool, a lot of beautiful wood and artwork around the place, which we pass en route to our very spacious, comfortable and nicely appointed garden view room. Because of the increased popularity of the country, it took our travel agent, Thiri, some time and effort to land us a place in the Governor’s Residence, but we are very happy that she was successful, as it will be a most comfortable home for us in our two stays here.

Instead of having lunch at the hotel, Hillary suggested we go to a local Burmese restaurant, called Feel. This is a very bustling place where food is laid out, people look at choices and waiters bring the food to the table. I was not hungry, but Carol enjoyed lunch.


After lunch, we were driven to Proximity Design, a place where Hillary works. This is a very interesting operation, founded by an American MBA, Jim Taylor, and his Burmese American wife, Debbie. We spend a couple hours there and have a chance to talk with Jim briefly. He says that farmers have been hurting because of government policies that keep the currency value artificially high, thus hurting the price of rice, but helping the gem industry in which the military and its supporters have large interests. Because of the trips that Carol and I have made to rural villages in Ghana, we are particularly interested to learn about this operation.

Here is Hillary at Proximity:


Here is a short description of the work that proximity does.

Proximity Designs is a non-profit social venture working to reduce poverty and hunger for tens of thousands of rural families in Myanmar since 2004.

We address extreme poverty by treating the poor as customers and offering innovative and affordably designed technologies and services. Our customers are families who earn their living by farming small plots of land. There are an estimated 10 million rural households in Myanmar. Our offerings include foot-operated irrigation pumps, drip irrigation sets, water storage tanks, solar lanterns, financial services and farm advisory services.

Our eighteen different products and services are designed to dramatically reduce daily drudgery, hardship and improve household productivity and incomes by replacing time-consuming and antiquated technologies. For example, our customers replace their rope and buckets for our foot-powered irrigation pumps and typically double net seasonal cash incomes ($200-300), money they can then use to buy food, send their children to school, reinvest in their farms and more.

To date, Proximity has delivered more than 180,000 products and services to over 77,000 rural households in Myanmar.

Our model: discover. design. deliver

Drawing on human-factor research methods used by the world’s leading innovation firms, we spend countless hours observing and interviewing rural households, learning what they value, identifying root problems and most important, developing empathy that leads to lasting solutions to the problems they face.

The insights we glean from intimate exposure to customers are what drive Proximity’s on-site product design lab. Located in Yangon, our lab designs and creates products exclusively for people living in poverty in the Myanmar context.

Products are manufactured locally and reach customers through a nationwide distribution network linking independent agro-dealers, village entrepreneurs (product reps) and village-based groups. Our delivery infrastructure spans an area where 80 percent of Myanmar’s rural population lives.

Linking up to national economic growth

Proximity understands that sustainable well-being for our customers depends on a supportive macro policy environment. To that end, we’ve leveraged our extensive, on-the-ground knowledge of rural conditions, teaming up with Harvard’s Ash Center to research and analyze Myanmar’s rural economy. We’ve produced several groundbreaking reports that have helped inform key policy makers in Myanmar.

How we measure our impact

We have a dedicated team within Proximity that comprehensively assesses the impact of our products and services. For the past several years we have conducted an annual impact assessment from a random sample of approximately 450 rural households, measuring the income increases families have achieved as a result of using one of our products. For example, we have documented that a household can increase their net seasonal cash income two-fold, by roughly USD $300, as a result of increased productivity from using the foot pump. We have also found that this additional income was used for purchasing more food and better diets for the household, paying children’s school fees and for farm inputs for their next crop. We have also conducted economic studies in multiple rural communities to estimate the multiplier effect of increased farmer net incomes on the larger economy.

After a couple hours at Proximity, we drive to the apartment home for a doctor. Unfortunately, her daughter tells us that she has been called away to an urgent meeting and so we rescheduled for tomorrow.

We are picked up by the father, Aung Moe, and brother, Pyae Phyo Hein, of the Northwestern student from the Myanmar, Arkar Hein (by the way, I learned that the Burmese have no surnames, so, though we’ve called him “Arkar” we should have been calling him “Arkar Hein”), who Carol and I have gotten to know in Evanston. His father owns a shrimp processing operation on the Bay of Bengal, near Bangladesh, an area that has experienced ethnic difficulties. He sells mainly to Japan, since sales to the West were cut off by trade prohibitions for many years. China, he says, wants volume, not quality, but Japan is willing to pay for quality. Aung Moe confirms Jim’s views that government currency policies impede sales.


We have tea with Arkar’s parents and family. His mother, Mu Mu Shein, is lovely and gracious, but speaks no English. Pyae Phyo Hein is finishing his sixth year in medical school (a resident), and thinks he may go into pediatrics. His lively, well-traveled grandfather, who is 84, and his very quiet grandmother, who along with Aung Moe’s two younger brothers and their families, live with them, join us. His grandfather speaks Mandarin, used to trade beans, and speaks a little English. They give us some lovely gifts because they are grateful for our looking out for Arkar. We have brought a CD of American music, which we give to them. Aung Moe has three older sisters, one of whom lives in San Francisco and who we met, because she traveled with Arkar when he first came to Northwestern. Here’s a lousy picture of the group (sorry).

From there, we go with Hillary and Pyae Phyo Hein for sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous site in Yangon. The pagoda dates back 1000 years, though it has been added to and altered many times. It is a very actively-used site, with many people there to worship. There are many different shrines, which we see as we circle the shrine, clockwise. It is very difficult to convey the scope of the site but some photos may at least give you some notion of this impressive, living monument.






From the pagoda, we are driven a short distance for dinner at a very nice restaurant at which Aung Moe has reserved a private room with a view of Shwedagon for us. We are joined by Dotty and her husband, Jim, along with Aung Moe’s family, minus grandparents. We are also joined by Khine Zin Thant, a graduate of Dotty’s school who is a sophomore at Vassar.

Jim is a very engaging fellow who Dotty met at Yale and who has lived here with her. He has taught at three or four universities in the area of public management, consulted with the State Department, the New York Port Authority and others. Jim as wide-ranging interests, including singing with a Russian chorus at Yale and running. He clearly has a lively intellect and a good sense of humor.

Over dinner, we talk about the changes taking place in Myanmar, the name Myanmar versus Burma and the stopping of a huge Chinese dam project, through public pressure, stoked by the newly freer press. Mutual concern about China is a strong impetus to burgeoning relations between the U S and China. Aung Moe participates actively in the discussion.

By the time we return to our hotel, we are more than ready for a shower and sleep, but I take a bit of time to download the day’s 100 photos.

International Date (lines)

January 14-16

It’s in packing that you start to wonder. First, there’s the malaria medicine. Next the pills for nausea that the malaria medicine may cause. Then, there’s the sun block, because the malaria medicine makes you prone to sunburn. Throw in a vial of pills for diarrhea, just in case you pick up some bug. The insect repellant to, well, repel insects. And, this trip, a heating pad, because my damn lower back has been hurting.

You cram in more clothes than you’re going to need, despite your vow not to do that, not this time. Time to head out to the airport, arriving two and a half hours before your flight to Hong Kong, a mere 15 1/2 hours, before your layover of about two hours there and then continuing on for your three hour flight to Bangkok, where you plan to grab some rest before your 9 AM flight to Yangon, a brief hour and twenty minutes. Altogether, you leave on Monday afternoon and arrive on Wednesday morning, having crossed the international date line, and flown some 9200 miles.

So, is it all really worth it? Oh, yes.

En route to Hong Kong, I read two books, Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, which I do not love, for our book group and a quite delightful book called Travels with Epicurus, given to us by our friend, Mike Lewis, which consists of philosophical musings on old age. Having both turned 70 recently, this is something on which Carol and I might well muse. I’ve been searching for the right term to describe where I’m at. “Adult” is too general and vague (and, in my case, probably not accurate), “middle age” is clearly a lie (how many 140-year olds do you know?) and “old” seems somehow too stark. I think I’ve finally got it, though. I am in my business class years.

Business class makes all of this travel a good deal more tolerable: special, short lines checking in and through security, club lounges with food and drink, early boarding, comfortable, reclining seats and better food. Maybe even a chance to sleep (I’ll get back to you on that one). For the most part, we’ve been able to do that on frequent flier miles, but I’ve about decided that, even without that, I’m now in my business class years. You might not have realized that I was such a philosopher.

Everything went smoothly, as scheduled (sleep on the plane, not so much). Arrived at the airport hotel, a Novotel in Bangkok, which boasts that it was rated the fifth best airport hotel in the world. All we want is a bed.

Truth is, Carol and I are very excited about this trip. We’ll be in a very different, interesting land that is undergoing a huge transition and, because of our friend Dotty (if you didn’t read the first post, please do to get the background), we will be experiencing it in a way that other visitors cannot. It’s been two years in coming, with one cancellation along the way, but we’re ready to go.

A day or two ago, we received an email from Hilary Myint, a graduate of Dotty’s school, who Dotty has enlisted to show us around Yangon. Hilary (also known as Yu Zind Htoon) wanted to know what we’d like to do in Yangon, and my reply to her, which I’ve copied below, is a pretty good summary of what we’re hoping for, and may be a good way to set the stage for our arrival in Myanmar:

Let me try to describe what interests us most, so that you can think about what would make sense for our stay in Yangon (actually two stays).

Carol and I are passionate travelers. What interests us most, wherever we go, is the people and the culture (religion, politics, the arts, etc). We are privileged to be traveling to Myanmar at a most interesting time of transition. We are would love to see how that transition is affecting people’s lives. I am sure that in ten years, Myanmar will be a dramatically different place. We are interested in seeing things now that visitors in ten years may not be fortunate enough to see or experience. While we are tourists, and so are interested in seeing things that we really should see as tourists, we have consciously decided not to do a typical tour of Myanmar and, because of Dorothy, have the opportunity to see the country in a unique way. So, we are interested in the central areas of Yangon, but we would also love to walk through neighborhoods where people live.

I am an avid photographer and will want to take many photos, particularly of people doing what they do. What seems to you ordinary day-to-day stuff may be very new and different to us. You can be a great help to me by explaining to people who may be a bit shy about being photographed that I am genuinely interested in them and what they do and am not photographing them because I regard them as “curiosities.” Carol’s background is as a psychologist and a poet, so if there are things that fit those interests, that would be great.

Finally, I hope that this will be a two-way street. You will be coming to the US for school soon and probably have many questions about that. To the extent you think it would be helpful, we are happy to talk about any aspect of what you may find when you get here.

Carol and I look forward to meeting and being with you, and appreciate greatly your taking the time to show us around.

And, in the next post, the adventure begins.

Preparing for Myanmar (Perhaps a Whole Lot More than You Want to Know)

Well, we’re leaving in a week, so isn’t it about time that you started getting ready?

Carol and I planned this trip for October, 2011, but, when our son-in-law got sick, we cancelled. The Myanmar we’ll be seeing is a different country than we’d have seen only a bit over a year ago. Though I don’t necessarily attribute all of the changes in the country to our planning a trip there, here are the remarkable highlights of what has happened in less than two years.

2011 March – Thein Sein is sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian government.

2011 August – President Thein Sein meets Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Laureate, who had been confined to house arrest) in Nay Pyi Taw (capital, but little-visited city).

2011 September – President Thein Sein suspends construction of controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam, in move seen as showing greater openness to public opinion.

2011 October – Some political prisoners are freed as part of a general amnesty. New labor laws allowing unions are passed.

2011 November- Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she will stand for election to parliament, as her party rejoins the political process.

2011 December – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits, meets Aung San Suu Kyi and holds talks with President Thein Sein. US offers to improve relations if democratic reforms continue.

President Thein Sein signs law allowing peaceful demonstrations for the first time; NLD re-registers as a political party in advance of by-elections for parliament due to be held early in 2012.

Burmese authorities agree to truce deal with rebels of Shan ethnic group and order military to stop operations against ethnic Kachin rebels.

2012 January – Government signs ceasefire with rebels of Karen ethnic group.

Pre-publication censorship was scrapped in 2012, but state control of media remains strong
2012 April – NLD candidates sweep the board in parliamentary by-elections, with Aung San Suu Kyi elected. The European Union suspends all non-military sanctions against Burma for a year. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visit for talks on moving the democracy process forwards.

2012 May – Manmohan Singh pays first official visit by an Indian prime minister since 1987. He signs 12 agreements to strengthen trade and diplomatic ties, specifically providing for border area development and an Indian credit line.

2012 August – President Thein Sein sets up commission to investigate violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the west of the country. Dozens have died and thousands of people have been displaced.

Burma abolishes pre-publication censorship, meaning that reporters no longer have to submit their copy to state censors. In a major cabinet reshuffle President Thein Sein replaces hardline Information Minister Kyaw Hsan with moderate Aung Kyi, the military’s negotiator with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

2012 September – Moe Thee Zun, the leader of student protests in 1988, returns from exile after Burma removed 2,082 people from its blacklist.

President Thein Sein tells the BBC he would accept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as president if she is elected.

2012 November – Visiting European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso offers Burma more than $100m in development aid.

Around 90 people are killed in a renewed bout of communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

President Barack Obama visits to offer “the hand of friendship” in return for more reforms. He urges reconciliation with the Rohingya minority.

The transformation in attitude by the government, recognized by the relaxing of restrictions by the US and other countries, then visits by the Secretary of State and the President, have made Myanmar (or Burma, of which more later) the hottest tourist destination on the planet. But Carol and I will not be doing the usual tourist thing, thanks to Dotty (again, more later).

So, first, a bit about Myanmar. Here’s a map to get you situated.


For a very quick summary of the country, I’ve pieced together (stolen) the material below from National Geographic, Wikipedia and the BBC websites. Please excuse the patchwork approach, but I was going for information, not art.


The majority of Myanmar’s more than forty-eight million people are ethnic Burmans, who are distantly related to the Tibetans and the Chinese. Other ethnic groups (including Shans, Karens, and Kachins) add up to some 30 percent of the population. Ethnic minorities are dominant in border and mountainous areas: Shan in the north and northeast (Indian and Thai borders), Karen in the southeast (Thai border), and Kachin in the far north (Chinese border). The military regime has brutally suppressed ethnic groups wanting rights and autonomy, and many ethnic insurgencies operate against it.

Burman dominance over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kachin and other minorities has been the source of considerable ethnic tension and has fuelled intermittent protests and separatist rebellions. Military offensives against insurgents have uprooted many thousands of civilians. Ceasefire deals signed in late 2011 and early 2012 with rebels of the Karen and Shan ethnic groups suggested a new determination to end the long-running conflicts.


The country was colonized by Britain following three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885). British rule brought social, economic, cultural and administrative changes.

With the fall of Mandalay, all of Burma came under British rule, being annexed on 1 January 1886. Throughout the colonial era, many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, construction workers and traders and, along with the Anglo-Burmese community, dominated commercial and civil life in Burma. Rangoon (Yangon) became the capital of British Burma and an important port between Calcutta and Singapore.

Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralysed Yangon on occasion all the way until the 1930s. Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement. U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.

On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain and Ba Maw the first Prime Minister and Premier of Burma. Ba Maw was an outspoken advocate for Burmese self-rule and he opposed the participation of Great Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. He resigned from the Legislative Assembly and was arrested for sedition. In 1940, before Japan formally entered the Second World War, Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) formed the Burma Independence Army in Japan.

A major battleground, Burma was devastated during World War II. By March 1942, within months after they entered the war, Japanese troops had advanced on Rangoon and the British administration had collapsed. A Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw was established by the Japanese in August 1942. Wingate’s British Chindits were formed into long-range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. A similar American unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the Burmese jungle in 1943. Beginning in late 1944, allied troops launched a series of offensives that led to the end of Japanese rule in July 1945. However, the battles were intense with much of Burma laid waste by the fighting. Overall, the Japanese lost some 150,000 men in Burma. Only 1,700 prisoners were taken.

Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, some Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, also served in the British Burma Army. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944, but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945.

Following World War II, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Burma as a unified state. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.


Independence from Britain in 1948 was followed by isolationism and socialism. On 2 March 1962, the military led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d’état and the government has been under direct or indirect control by the military since then. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control under the Burmese Way to Socialism which combined Soviet-style nationalization and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs. A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974, until 1988, the country was ruled as a one-party system, with the General and other military officers resigning and ruling through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. On 7 July 1962, the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.

In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalized plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989. SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989.

In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats (i.e., 80% of the seats). However, the military junta refused to cede power and continued to rule the nation as SLORC until 1997, and then as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) until its dissolution in March 2011.

On 23 June 1997, Burma was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). On 27 March 2006, the military junta, which had moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana in November 2005, officially named the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning “city of the kings”.

In August 2007, an increase in the price of diesel and petrol led to a series of anti-government protests that were dealt with harshly by the government. The protests then became a campaign of civil resistance (also called the Saffron Revolution), led by Buddhist monks, hundreds of whom defied the house arrest of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi to pay their respects at the gate of her house. The government finally cracked down on them on 26 September 2007. The crackdown was harsh, with reports of barricades at the Shwedagon Pagoda and monks killed. However, there were also rumours of disagreement within the Burmese armed forces, but none was confirmed. The military crackdown against unarmed Saffron Revolution protesters was widely condemned as part of the International reaction to the 2007 Burmese anti-government protests and led to an increase in economic sanctions against the Burmese Government.

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis caused extensive damage in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. It was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history with reports of an estimated 200,000 people dead or missing, and damage totaled to 10 billion dollars (USD), and as many as 1 million left homeless. In the critical days following this disaster, Burma’s isolationist government hindered recovery efforts by delaying the entry of United Nations planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies.

In early August 2009, a conflict known as the Kokang incident broke out in Shan State in northern Burma. For several weeks, junta troops fought against ethnic minorities including the Han Chinese, Va, and Kachin. From 8–12 August, the first days of the conflict, as many as 10,000 Burmese civilians fled to Yunnan province in neighboring China


Myanmar is a resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base, and is a leading producer of gems, jade, and teak. However, military rule prevented the economy from developing, and the Burmese people remain poor.

A largely rural, densely forested country, Burma is the world’s largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It has highly fertile soil and important offshore oil and gas deposits. Little of this wealth reaches the mass of the population.

The economy is one of the least developed in the world, and is suffering the effects of decades of stagnation, mismanagement, and isolation. Key industries have long been controlled by the military, and corruption is rife. The military has also been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter.

The EU, United States and Canada imposed economic sanctions on Burma, and among major economies only China, India and South Korea have invested in the country.

Burma’s wealth of Buddhist temples has boosted the increasingly important tourism industry, which is the most obvious area for any future foreign investment.

Industry: Agricultural processing; knit and woven apparel; wood and wood products; copper, tin, tungsten, iron, gems, jade
Agriculture: Rice, pulses, beans, sesame; hardwood (teak); fish
Exports: Gas, wood products, pulses, beans, fish, rice

When Carol and I originally planned this trip, we did it through a California travel agent. We had a very good and traditional tourist itinerary all set up, but then we met Dotty Guyot, through our friends, Sharon Silverman and David Zimberoff. Dotty was a college classmate of David’s, obtained a PhD in Southeast Asian studies from Yale (thesis: the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II) and has lived in Myanmar for nine years. She and her husband Jim run an English language, precollegiate school for talented high school graduates in Yangon. Students complete a one-year course and then are placed in universities, primarily in the US and Japan. Carol and I have gotten to know one of their graduates, Arkar Hein, who is now a sophomore at Northwestern University.

Dotty has enthusiastically offered to structure our trip and to introduce us to many people in different walks of life. We have jumped at her offer and abandoned our original plans in favor of Dotty’s recommendations, with the help of a local travel agent, Thiri, who Dotty put us in touch with. You will be reading a great deal about the plans that Dotty has made for us in this blog, as they constitute the backbone of our trip.

So, this is your rather helter-skelter introduction to Myanmar and how our trip came about. We’ll try to fill in some of the gaping holes and add a little order to the chaos as we progress on our journey.

Orchids in the Rain, then Back Home

November 14

Last day in Singapore was a full and tiring one, the latter due in part to it being the end of a long trip, in part to a lot of running around and in part to the hot, humid weather. Best aspect was the chance to spend a lot more time with Rinpoche.

Breakfast at the hotel with Antonio Eraso, a Singaporean architect who I’d met and spent some time with on my second visit to Bhutan, when he was planning to do a major renovation of Rinpoche’s monastery, which has not taken place. Antonio is in and out of Singapore a good deal in his work, and describes Singapore as a kind of aircraft carrier for him. Rinpoche joined us for the second half of the breakfast, but then had to leave for a meeting.

I walked to see the Jewish synagogue, which serves about 500 people. The building is gated and there is a sign that says no admittance, but when I asked to go in, the guard asked where I was from, whether I was Jewish, inspected my passport and let me in. I was shown around by another guard, who told me about the synagogue, which was founded by an Iraqi Jew. (Note: my Singapore photos are clearly a reversion to snapshots that document the trip. Time and conditions didn’t allow for much more, and I was pretty-much photographed out after taking well over 3000 in China.)


Walked farther down the same street to see the bustling Chinese Buddhist and Indian Hindu temples, both of which were crowded with worshippers.





From there I took a taxi to the Peranakan museum, which Esther Tan had told me about. This was a really fascinating museum about the history, customs and lives of people of mixed breeds, formed when traders passed through the straits and married Malaysians. Very well done and interesting.

Taxied back to the hotel where I had very over-priced and mediocre mini-burgers in the famed Long Bar of the hotel. Well, one does need to see the Long Bar. Went up to my room, finished packing and stored the luggage for later.


Had arranged to meet Rinpoche at the place he teaches in Singapore at 2:30, and he’d given me directions and location, but not an exact address. I was to contact him through the new WhatsApp he’d introduced me to, and he’d come downstairs to get me. Only trouble with that plan was that I didn’t have the wifi connection I needed for the App to work. So, when I got o the area, I wandered into a fairly seedy hotel and convinced the guy at the desk to phone Rinpoche. No answer, so I left a message as to where I was. Tried again 15 minutes later and reached him, so he sent the other rinpoche I’d met yesterday, Chung, down to meet me and bring me up to the modest sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and class room that constitute Rinpoche’s Singapore headquarters.



As Rinpoche was busy, I spent twenty minutes talking to Chung, who, at 29, is three years Rinpoche’s junior, and clearly looks up to him as a mentor. They studied at the same school in the South of India under the same master, who died shortly before I met Rinpoche for the first time. They now study under the same Chinese master, about 79, whose recent visit to Singapore is what drew Rinpoche and Chung to come there now. Both Rinpoche and Chung have traveled to China to study with this master, but not dressed as monks. As the Chinese do not take kindly to monks coming to study there, traveling there to do that was dangerous.

Chung was very friendly, but the level of his English makes him more difficult to understand. He is the third of seven brothers, four of whom are reincarnates. Three of the brothers live in Nepal, where Chung also spent several years. As a young boy of seven, he left his family to become a monk and rarely saw/sees them. He would like to come to the States, but that is very difficult to arrange.

Rinpoche rejoined us and told me that the hotel I’d stopped into to call him was a “love hotel.”. Having watched the clientele register, this does not at all surprise me. Rinpoche showed me around the headquarters. The altar in the classroom contains statues, flowers, fruit, other offerings, candles and photos of his former and present masters. He introduces me to two women students (disciples), who are very friendly. They drive us quite a distance to the famed botanical gardens, as Rinpoche and I planned to walk around them, particularly the orchid garden. The other woman says to call her when we are finished and she will pick us up and drive us back.

It’s pouring, so Rinpoche, Chung and I have coffee, then wander around the gift shop. The rain lets up some, Rinpoche borrows a couple umbrellas and we walk around for forty minutes in the light rain. I qualify for a senior admission, but Rinpoche is denied thatvrate, despite his wry plea that he is 450 years old. Rinpoche shows me how to use the panorama feature of my camera, which is quite neat, and I take several panorama photos. Rinpoche is interested in cameras, too, and has a Canon (but not with him; he takes photos with his iPhone). He likes to photograph flowers, the moon, various natural settings. I tell him that I’m far more interested in photographing people. He says that, as a rinpoche, he can’t photograph people, because that would not be in keeping with others’ expectations of proper behavior for one in his position.



We are picked up and driven back. Rinpoche has a dinner that he tries to shift to tomorrow, but can’t, so we agree to meet back at the hotel later and walk around the Arab area. I’m dropped off at the architecturally interesting Arts and Science Museum, which has a major photography exhibit that Esther had told me about. The museum adjoins a huge, modern shopping mall, which I have to walk through. I like some of the photography, but not others, though it’s certainly worth seeing.



I walk back through the shopping center, stand in a long, but fast-moving taxi line and return to the hotel, where Rinpoche had suggested that I could use the spa. Though I’ve checked out, there’s no problem in doing this, and I use the steam room, shower and feel refreshed. I head down to a small lounge off the lobby for a club sandwich and a beer. A very good piano player is performing.

I use my new App to contact Rinpoche to tell him that I’d love to see him again, but that the thought of going out in the humidity and getting sweaty again before flying out is more than I can handle. He agrees to come over to the hotel and we pend another hour and a half talking, mainly my asking him about his reaction to the dialysis and kidney transplant he had. The experience has had a profound affect on him, and he is committed to two new projects because of it: getting more dialysis machines for Bhutan (there are only six in the country) and providing help to sick people whose needs (physical and emotional) he thinks are being ignored in too many cases. He is committed to building a shelter at the main hospital in Thimpu to house caretakers for these patients.

We talk about other things, as well. He will be going to Indonesia soon, because there are people there who are interested in building a monastery and school in Indonesia, modeled after his in Bhutan that they want him to run. He seems interested in doing this so long as he can be assured that the operations of the monastery will not be controlled by the funders. He also needs to get back to Bhutan in a few days because an architect from the World Heritage Fund who is interested in helping with his monastery is coming to visit.

He walks me to the front door of the hotel, where my car soon arrives to drive me to the airport. It was terrific to be able to spend so much time with Rinpoche, and to catch up. Staying in touch now, with the new WhatsApp, ought to be easier. Everything goes very smoothly at the airport. I spend a couple hours in the “important peoples’ lounge,” and I’m now winging my way towards Tokyo. Though it’s a long haul home, 6 1/2 hours to Tokyo and over 11 to Chicago (not including transportation to and from airport or airport time), everything goes smoothly. Business class helps the comfort level, and for the first time, I took an Ambien, which allowed me to sleep for 6’hours en route to Chicago.

The time spent before Guizhou, with Evan Osnos in Beijing, and after, with Esther Tan and Rinpoche in Singapore, made really interesting bookends to the trip. And staying at the Mandarin and especially at Raffles were a great start and finish. Only wish Carol could have been along.

If you’re game for another adventure, Carol and I will meet you in Myanmar (Burma) in January. I’ve appreciated the many kind comments and emails I’ve received in response to the China blog. It’s been fun to have you along. As much as I enjoy traveling, it’s very comforting to be in touch with friends and family along the way. I think this China trip would have seemed particularly lonesome without this ability to communicate, because of the fact that Carol was not along, because of the remoteness of the area to which I was traveling and because of being away for the presidential election.

Singapore: Modern Ways and Rinpoches

November 13

Off plane about 10:20. No line at immigration. Bags were among the first off. Met by my air conditioned car, with wifi. As we get close to Raffles( my grand, 125-year old hotel), driver calls the hotel to say we’ll be arriving soon. I’m met at the door by a young lady, who calls me by name and shows me up to my large suite and registers me up there, takes my credit card and passport for a few minutes, then returns with it. As I didn’t eat the stuff on the plane, I dine on the fresh fruit in my room. And all this for only about a gazillion dollars a night. (But it includes breakfast, soft drinks from the minibar, pressing of three items a day (non-cumulative) and free local calls. So, how can you beat that? To paraphrase a line from The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Guizhou anymore, Dorothy.”


Excellent breakfast at the hotel, before I’m picked up by Esther Tan, who I’d been put in touch with through Jack Doppelt, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where Rachel Tan, Esther’s daughter, is a graduate student (well, that’s how things happen, right?). Esther very graciously spends several hours driving me around, showing me Singapore and telling me something about its history. We spend most of the time in the car to avoid the humid 85-degree temperature, which is relatively cool for Singapore.

A modern, clean, apparently prosperous city of some five million people. Government support of housing is a big reason that people are relatively well off. Maintaining that prosperity as a small country without resources (it depends on Malaysia, from which it split off in 1965, for water) and dealing with immigration concerns are Singapore’s current challenges. Still a British influence, evident from their driving on the “wrong” side of the road.


Went to a large shopping center, where we met Esther’s mother-in-law, Kay, and two friends, Get and Eunice, all of whom were entrepreneurs (retired, except for Eunice) and all of whom were lively and fun. They ordered about a dozen or more dishes, all of them different from the Chinese fare I’d had the past two weeks. Eunice does promotional work for clients so, of course, I talked to her about the books Carol and I have done. Will send her the latest, and be in touch.


Stopped to buy a couple short sleeve shirts for my two days here. Then Esther and I drove, stopped for coffee and I was dropped back at the hotel for my late afternoon meeting.

We need a bit of background to set up that meeting. When Carol and I went to Bhutan about three and a half years ago, we met H.E. 9th Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk who is the 9th reincarnation of one of the twenty five disciples of the guru who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. We hit it off with Rinpoche, seeing him twice while we were there. When we first met, I told him that I knew that Buddhists taught that life is suffering, and I wondered what advice he had for Cubs fans, who had not won a World Series in over 100 years. He thought and said, “You should not be too sad, think of the joy you have brought to other teams.”. I converted him to a Cubs fan, so that he would know real suffering.


When I returned home, I got an email from Rinpoche (remember, he lives in a monastery up on a mountaintop and runs a school for disadvantaged boys) asking that I friend him on Facebook, thus becoming my only openly reincarnated friend. We maintained contact and a year and a half later I accepted his invitation to come to the annual festival at his monastery in Bhutan. He became seriously ill and, at 33 years of age, required a kidney transplant. This appears to have gone well, but needs to be watched carefully.

When I decided to go to China, I added a stop in Singapore, because there appeared to be a fairly good chance that Rinpoche old be there. Two months ago, though, I heard from Yvonne Eu, who works closely with Rinpoche in Singapore, where he does a lot of teaching, that he would not be there. A week before I left, though, Yvonne contacted me with the news that Rinpoche might be in Singapore after all. A couple days ago, we arranged to meet late this afternoon, including Yvonne, with whom I have had very extensive contact, but never met.

Two-hour tea at Raffles with Rinpoche and another rinpoche friend of his, Chung Trulku, from Bum Thang in Bhutan, joined for the last 3/4 hour by Yvonne. Rinpoche looks and seems quite terrific, a year after a kidney transplant. There were some scary moments before and during the process, but he appears to have pulled through very well.




We talked about what is going on at the monastery. Some plans he’d had for renovation had fallen through, but he thinks others he’s working on may well occur.

We talked some about his illness. Over 80 people had volunteered to donate a kidney for him. One of his young assistants at the monastery, Sanjay, was the eventual donor.

He installed a new app on my iPhone, “What’s App,” which he said would allow us to stay in closer touch. Then he taught me how to use it. One of the things I love about Rinpoche is how seamlessly he moves between centuries.

He asked me how the Cubs had done, and I told him that he was a dismal failure. He said that it’s possible he may go to New York and, if he does, he’ll come to Chicago to visit. I told him that I thought a personal trip to Wrigley Field was necessary to get the Cubs on track.

We needed to break up around seven,but he’s coming back to the hotel for breakfast tomorrow.

Esther picked me up for dinner at Jumbo Seafood at Dempsey, a very happening part of Singapore, built on a former army base. (Singaporean men are required to serve two years in the army after high school and a month a year after that, which employers must allow in addition to vacation.). Dinner was terrific and unusual, including chili crab, scallops in a ring of yam and mocha pork ribs. Esther dropped me back at the hotel, where I blogged and tried to get a bit organized for my last day.

Reflections on Travel and Photography in Guizhou

November 12

After an early breakfast, we set off for the Guiyang airport at 7:30, expecting to arrive by 10 AM. Evelyn had an early morning flight, so left to stay in Guiyang after dinner last night. All of the rest, except for Sheilah, are on the same flight to Beijing. Sheilah and I fly to Guangzhou, she then on to Hong Kong and me to Singapore. It’s going to be a very long travel day as I have a 4-hour layover, then a 4-hour flight to Singapore, arriving at 9:50 PM. So, I hope to use part of that time to reflect on the trip. Sorry, no photos today.

Arrive at the Guiyang airport in plenty of time, but find that my baggage is overweight. They do not take either credit cards or dollars, and the bank that a nice young woman leads me to will not change dollars. Fortunately our guides are at the airport and change money for me, so I am able to pay the (considerable) fine.

I’ve been the principle consumer of peanut butter on the trip, so I was presented the remaining jar, with some crackers. Going through security, the jar of peanut butter is confiscated, much to the amusement of the rest of the group.

Okay, so, the trip. There are really two separate, but related, aspects–travel around Guizhou and photography.

First, travel. Wonderful. A different experience than I’ve had, seeing tribes in this remote area of China through visiting their villages and festivals. The diversity and richness of our experiences was quite amazing.

Great credit goes to Nevada and her team of Xue Biao, Lee and our driver, Lao Weng. All of them were focused on the needs of each member of the group at all times and often went out of their way to satisfy them. Nevada is a real pro, not only as a photographer, but as a trip planner, as well.

Nevada did a terrific job of setting (lowering) expectations in us from the outset, stating clearly and repeatedly in her materials that this was not a trip for everyone. That is true. It was not an easy trip. By the end of the trip, the group was something of a walking infirmary, with most suffering some sort of cold, cough, sore throat, respiratory ailment or some combination thereof. Slogging continually through mud, often in chilly, damp and rainy conditions, hiking up, down and around, packing and/or unpacking most days, riding in a less than roomy bus, sometimes for long stretches over bumpy roads–all of this was not a walk in the park. But I think every of of us would say that the trip was well worth the tribulations.

We covered a lot of ground, traveling about 1500 kilometers. While that does not sound like a huge distance for two weeks, when you factor in the poor condition of many of the roads, it amounts to a lot of travel. Our maximum altitude was over 4200 feet, and we went up or down some 80,000 feet on the trip. (Nevada has a gadget that tracks those things, so I felt I had to report them.)

A word about the group. We had a very congenial, fun-loving group of ten people, all of whom were experienced travelers and, at one level or another, photographers. In any group of ten, one is bound to like some more than others, but there were none of the losers one often encounters in group travel. Once again, I think that Nevada deserves credit for helping the group gel, because of her infectious and upbeat manner.

Second, the photography. A number of you have written, wanting to know more about that aspect of the trip, so here goes more than at least some of you may wish for. Feel free to skip or skim; this won’t be on the final exam.

Over the years, I’ve been to many places and taken many thousands of photos. Along the way, I like to think that I’ve improved some. But this trip was transformational from a photographic standpoint. I began to glimpse how much I did not know and to sort out in my own mind what I might like to do going forward.

Quantitatively, I took more photos by a factor of three than on any trip I’d ever taken. Part of that was simply because photography was the heart and purpose of the trip. Part of it was because, unlike other trips, I never had to be concerned that I would be holding others up by taking photographs. And, finally, it was because I routinely took many photos of the same setting, because I left the camera in drive mode, so that when I held the button down, the shutter would continue to shoot in fractions of a second until I released it. This allows you to capture subtle changes in a subject and, for example, to avoid a photo with the subjects’ eyes closed.

For those of you who may be experienced photographers, much of what follows may evoke a, “Well, duh” response, but I suspect that many of you will be surprised that some truisms turn out not to be true. A few examples:

The ideal situation for taking a good photograph is a bright, sunny day.
2. When you go into a place with poor light, you use your flash to illuminate the subject.
3. A photograph that is not sharp is a poor photograph.
4. If you have somebody in your photo who is not part of the main subject, you’ve made a mistake.
5. The best way to photograph somebody is straight on, at eye level.
6. When you are taking a photo of one individual, the best picture is a vertical one.

My concept of what is a good photograph has changed dramatically. Most all of this is due to listening to and/or watching Nevada. I now understand that I am doing more than “taking” a photograph, I am “making” a photograph. Through the way I choose to take the photo, I can transform a scene that is not inherently interesting into a good photograph and, conversely, I can take a subject that could be great and transform it into something dull or uninteresting. In other words, it takes more than an interesting subject to make an interesting photo.

There are four, perhaps five, possible elements to a photo: color, light, action and composition (and the fifth would be gesture). For me, I think my strength is composition, and I think I get and can practice capturing gesture. Light is something I need to understand much better and work on, but at least I now “get” the importance of light. Action may or may not be present in a situation, though there are times when I can enhance the sense of action by choices I make. To the extent that color is related to light, I need to work on that, too.

Nevada says that she likes problems, because solving those problems leads to creativity. In any situation, she looks for the problems. That would be a good thing for me to do, too, but I’m certainly not there yet.

Here are some other things I learned.

Background is much more important than I’d thought. It can either enhance the photo, or distract.

I need to move around much more, both around a particular subject and, for example in the festivals we went to, all around the festival.

You need to try to relate to your subject. Smiling is good, as is speaking even a few words of the language. Showing the subject the photo you’ve taken may warm her up for a better follow-up photo.

You want to capture moments. That’s not easy to understand in the abstract, but when you look at a photo and Nevada says, “that was a nice moment,” you know what it means.

In some situations, it may be possible to layer a photo, by showing people doing different things in the same photo, perhaps cooking in the foreground and eating in the background. That is one way to tell a story, another aim of a photo.

Shooting at different angles, panning (moving the camera as you shoot), getting people to look directly at you and even to shift their position, framing subjects horizontally (I was doing too much vertical) and taking photos in low light are all creative choices available to you.

I have not talked about technical proficiency and equipment. These are areas in which I’m going to tread very lightly. I do need to understand more technically, but I just don’t have the interest in plunging deeply into that area. I recognize that this will limit what potentially I can do, but that’s okay.

I have a similar attitude towards equipment. A month before going on this trip, I bought a Sony NEX 7. (I was introduced to the camera by a professional photographer friend, Dave Jordano. If you want to see some amazing images at a level to which I do not remotely aspire, take a look at The camera is a high quality digital SLR that is very light and versatile. I have an18-55mm lens and an 18-200mm. I watched my fellow group member lug multiple cameras and heavy lenses and I was very happy to have made the choice I did. At least for now, I intend to stick with that.

One thing I’ve mused on is whether the new sense I have of what I want to accomplish in a photo will be shared by friends, family and others who see my photos. Not having been through the experience I have, they may prefer the types of images I used to capture. I suppose time will tell, but I’d be interested in any of your thoughts on this.

Well, I’m in Guangzhou and about to head towards my gate for the flight to Singapore. I am looking forward greatly to time I’ll be spending there, but I’ll save that story for a post from Singapore. As we say in China, hasta luego.

Winding Town, a Final Market and Farewell Dinner

November 11

Set off after breakfast (scrambled eggs again) for the old part of Kaili, a city that has grown dramatically over the past decade or so to a population of about 400,000. Judging from the enormous amount of new construction that we can see from our hotel window, it’s probably destined to at least double in size in the coming years.

Short bus ride to the old city of Kaili, where we walk through an enormous, bustling market that materializes every Sunday. Minority groups wearing traditional garb mix with western dress. Because of the large number of people and high level of activity, it’s not ideal for photographing, with the notable exception of a small lane, inhabited by old men selling tobacco and pipes, who are smoking. After a couple hours, we return to the hotel, then out to a nearby restaurant for lunch.







Three members of the group decide to go to a final village. Several others buy embroidered work from a guy who set up shop in the hotel lobby. I spend some time with Nevada, getting her comments on some of the photos I’ve downloaded, which is very helpful, both in confirming many of my impressions and getting a different perspective on some of them.

Pull some things together, blog and rest up before our farewell dinner, which is held at at another hotel and features Beijing Duck. I read “what really happened on our trip blog” and people seemed to enjoy it. Many toasts and comments about what a great trip we had.


Master Weavers and a Chaotic Festival

November 10

Breakfast in the hotel includes some scrambled eggs, so I actually eat a real morning meal.

Stopped at Wengxiang village, where we saw a terrific master weaver named Madam Li Jing Ying and her mother, Deseng, who wove, sang and did a little dance for us. Went overboard on the photos, as I think everyone in the group did, because it was such a terrific, colorful setting. (I took 280 there, but walked back with a group member who had taken 550. Also took some video of the singing and dancing with my iPhone, which i should have been doing all along, but haven’t.) The quality of her work was comparable to what we saw in Madam Yang’s museum. Afterwards, the group bought a good deal of embroidery from her, easily making her month, if not her year. Suzette is the champion shopper in the group.










Lunch in Panghai, then drive about an hour to Gulong for our last festival. Huge traffic/parking jam on the way forces us to stop/park well short of the festival and hike down into something of a hectic mob scene. Initially waded through the muck to see bull fights at a great distance. Did not stay long, though, and made my way into another area.

Costumes of all sorts, traditional and modern, cotton candy made the old fashioned way, cute little kids, including small girls in full regalia dancing, popular singers performing on large stage to a very attentive audience, bulls being led down the street, hair dos of all sorts on women and men, some folks who had had a bit too much to drink, men carrying their song birds in covered cages. Different in scope and pace from the others festivals we’ve seen. Difficult to photograph, but once you accepted that, it’s a lot of fun just to soak in. So spread out and chaotic that I find out later that I missed an entire area where dances were done, which I regretted, but I was not the only one to miss it.












After two and a half hours, hike back up the hill to our bus and make our way through heavy traffic back to our hotel. Forty-five minutes to clean up then down for dinner at the hotel. Nevada has brought along a big stash of chocolates, and every night passes them around after dinner. I’ve gotten addicted.

Dog (Fight) Days

November 9

Nine o’clock takeoff for the market in Leishan. You can tell that it’s getting towards the end of our trip because the group seems more interested in shopping at the market than photographing it. Interesting variety of stuff, some purchases by group members and some photo opportunities, but not one of our more memorable activities.




We drive to Kaili for lunch. I stick to my peanut butter lunch routine. I’ve discovered I’m a one-Chinese-meal-a-day guy. During bus rides, Nevada sometimes talks about photographic matters and/or reads from Internet cites about current events.

After lunch, we go to a festival at Chong-an to see the Gejai people and Red Miao people, whose costumes differ from those we’ve seen before.. There’s a light mist, and we’re back to walking through mud again, but not as muddy as our prior festival. The atmosphere and look is more of a fair, than a festival. There are horse races, dog fights and bull fights. The horse races are not as good as those we saw at the other festival and, happily, I saw only dog threats, not dog fights. I did not try to make my way into the bull fighting area, which seemed quite crowded. Near the end, there were performances up on a stage, but that, too, was crowded and as we were on our way out and rather spent, I didn’t really see much of that, either.






The unanimous consensus of the group is that this was the least interesting of the festivals we’ve seen. But we’ve been spoiled by some very good ones and, hey, not every festival can be a winner. Far fewer, and less interesting, photos today than on the rest of the trip. Speaking of “fewer”photos, at lunch today, Nevada mentioned that she’d taken about 8000 photos on this trip so far. I thought that I’d taken an incredible number, and I’m probably around 2000.

It’s good to get to our hotel, the Jintai Yuan Hotel, where we’ll spend our last three nights. We get the hell out of our muddy and somewhat damp clothes, take a hot shower in our comfortable rooms and go down for a very good dinner in the hotel.

Slices of Life in Four Villages

November 8

Bring down our laundry, which we hope this time will be delivered tonight, dry, and we set out at 9:30. The day is overcast, but not rainy, and warmer than yesterday.

I think the group is still winding down from the presidential election, and following the aftermath with interest. Quite a contrast to be in China at this time, which coincides with their once-a-decade change in power that seems to be of little import, and at best passing interest to the populace here. The forces of globalization and the Internet are changing things here, but not very damn fast, in a political sense, at least.

No festivals today, but we stop and walk around four different villages. Just walking around and photographing is quite interesting and satisfying. All of the villages are inhabited by Long-skirt Miao people. In general, everyone is very friendly and inviting, though, not surprisingly, occasionally people do not want their pictures taken.

In the first village, on the outskirts of Leishan, we see people making simple clay bowls. Unlike other trips, when going to see a craft means attempts to sell you the crafts, this is not the case in any of the villages we visit today. I am with Nevada and watch where and what she shoots. She is happy to talk to me about what she is thinking/doing, which is helpful to me.



In the next village, Paiki, we see people making lushengs, the wooden-piped musical instruments played in the festivals we’ve been to. This is literally cottage industry, as it’s made by people in their home. One of the craftsman plays Auld Lang Syne for us. Across from this very lovely village a huge instruction project that looks like apartments is going up. In a couple years, this area may have changed pretty dramatically. China is focused on developing its western region and in moving people from the country into cities.



We walk around a third village, then stop for lunch at a restaurant, before heading to Zhang-Ao, which is known for copper drum dances. There Lee arranges to have the headman assemble a group of dancers and a drummer to perform for us. The costumes are quite wonderful and the dance interesting. Many in our group enjoyed this more than I did. Although the dance is an authentic dance that is still performed, the whole thing felt (and was) staged.






I far prefer the scenes we see walking around villages. People sitting about, the rice being separated from the chaff in a dusty old house, a shaman singing a melody and performing a ritual to help the son of a family, whose soul has been stolen by a demon, a man with his song bird in a cage and a lady with her cat. Here are some of those photos, taken from various of the villages we visited.







Again, we arrive back at the hotel by five and have two and a half hours before dinner, which we again have at the hotel.

Shopping for a President

November 7

Pack, breakfast and prepare for a very civilized 9:30 departure. Good, Western-style breakfast, with forks; yessss! We run errands and shop in a light drizzle in Kaili this morning. It’s a nice change of pace, and fun to wander the department store aisles with Chinese shoppers. Most of us pick up little treasures; red socks and a small thermos cup for me. I think my poor camera feels neglected as I’ve managed only about half a dozen pictures by noon. I offer only a couple for today, one of the department store and one an intentional blur of a street scene in the rain.



Drive to Madam Yang’s Museum, called The Sun Drum Miao & Dong Costumes Museum, an absolutely extraordinary collection of exquisite textiles and jewelry of Miao, Dong, Yao and other peoples. Each piece is a work of art and the three floors of rooms are all beautifully displayed and lit, with descriptions in English of the costumes, and who wears them for what occasion.

Madame Yang used to be in charge of buying textiles for the Kali Museum that we visited on the first day. She left to pursue her passion for this work and has built a fabulous collection, only part of which is displayed in the museum. She hopes to build a new, larger museum.

Down in the gift shop, we learn that Obama has won, so there is great celebration and relief among our group. I think that Madam Yang benefits greatly from the president’s win, as the good feelings pour over into the group purchasing several thousand dollars of textiles and jewelry from the gift shop, that we might have forgone had the election gone the wrong way. Aside from getting some very nice, quality work, we feel good about supporting Madam Yang’s efforts at the museum.

We have a late lunch not far from the museum, then drive to Leishan, arriving by 5 PM, staying at the very comfortable and modern Leigongshan International Hotel. We have a luxurious two and a half hours off before our very good dinner at the hotel.

Today was chilly and rainy all day, a perfect and much-needed day off for everyone, especially after yesterday’s mud bath. I expect that we’ll all be ready, if not rarin’ to go, tomorrow.

Death, Mud and Horses

November 6

Election day, back home, though as we’re about twelve hours ahead, we won’t get results until tomorrow. There’s been much talk and concern about the outcome, as we discovered early-on that all of us were Obama supporters.

Near the hotel we encounter a funeral procession about to start. A live rooster was on the top of the coffin. Later, on the bus, Lee explains that the rooster gets detailed and specific instructions from the shaman on where to guide the deceased’s spirit after death. The rooster is then killed by the shaman banging it’s head against the coffin.

Later, the coffin is covered in bright colors with a paper mâché man on top of it, men dressed in white, musical instruments, lines of large, round wreaths start down the street as we photograph.




Noodle, soup and fried egg breakfast in small, storefront restaurant, a pit stop back at the hotel, then a ride to the Sui Festival we were supposed to attend yesterday in Longtai Village. We spend time walking around the village and taking photographs of people, some on their homes.


We then head down to where the festival will be held through some serious mud. Not long after we get to the festival area, it begins to rain, so we finally get a chance to don the umbrella hats that we bought on the first day. Here’s Lee in her hat.


We look pretty goofy, good subjects for Chinese photographers. But the damn hats work and we’re all quite pleased with our $2.50 purchase.

We walk up to a restaurant for lunch, peanut butter and crackers for me, as three Chinese meals in a day is one or two over my limit. A table of Chinese toast Obama.


After lunch, we head down to the area where there will be horse races. We encounter a shaman, named Wang Hui Bing, who has just completed an offering. He is cooperative in posing for photos.


The mud cakes our shoes and splatters our clothes. It’s difficult to pick one foot after another out of the mud.


We wait for the start of the horse races, which are down a narrow mud lane lined by flags. Riders are bareback, and some of the horses are unruly, and difficult to mount.


One or two take the riders off the track, and one rider is thrown. The horses practice one at a time, then race in twos and threes, great fun to watch.



Blurred pictures capture some of the spirit of what we saw.



After the races, we slog back through the mud to the road, then up the road to the bus. We try to brush and wash some of the mud off our shoes with modest success. We ride the bus a couple hours to Kaili. Nevada reads interesting CNN reports on the transition in China’s government and on the presidential election.

At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kaili, we check in and rush up to the room for warm showers and to try to get some of the mud off our shoes and clothes. Across the street to a restaurant for another good Chinese dinner.

Hurricane Helen and the Surprise Festival

November 5

Breakfast at the hotel, then off to a Shui festival, stopping en route at a market of Shui and Miao people in the Sandu area. Market is in the town of Dujiang (jiang means “river”).

Oops, on the way to the market, we learn that a festival is taking place at another village, and we detour to go to the festival. This is typical of the organic way this trip develops. The village is Gaodong and we will see the white collar Miao people.

Okay, now, having been to the festival, I can report that it was amazing. It all came about because Lee was checking directions and a lady who the group nicknamed “Hurricane Helen” told him about the festival. Nicely dressed and wearing high heels, Helen hopped on our bus and directed us to the festival, where we were greeted by women with baijou, a liquor, in bowls and horns, which they poured into our mouths.


They placed a string with a pink egg cradled in red threads around each of our necks.

A group of young girls in costume sang for us.


We were then herded up the hill by Hurricane Helen, past musicians and other costumed ladies. From there, Helen escorted us to the headman’s house, where we were served lunch, along with many Chinese visitors to the festival. Hurricane Helen is a force. You would not want to get in her way. Evidently, November is National Firecracker Month in Guizhou, because here, as elsewhere, firecrackers were fired off in constantly, rapid-fire, sounding like gun shots.

After lunch, we wandered down through crowds of people to two open areas, separated by a kind of moat. The place had a county fair atmosphere, with stands selling food and other items, balloons, cotton candy, etc. In one area, bull fighting would take place; on the other side of the moat, dancing. We opted to watch the dancing, along with thousands of others who sat or stood in tiers on the surrounding hillsides, creating a colorful backdrop to the festival.







There were five or six different types of Miao people, all dressed in distinctive costumes, children and young and old women, dancing in circles to lusheng music and, later, to drums.

We were objects of some curiosity and were asked by many to pose for photos with their friends or family members. That was a fair trade, as the photographic opportunities for us were amazing. I wound up taking 362 photos for the day. (I discovered from talking to others later that I was definitely below what most took). There was ample time to experiment, as for example in two panning shots below, intentionally blurry, which you may or may not care for.



People were very friendly and a few of us were pushed into a dance line to participate, as I am here with the lusheng players.


To put it mildly, it was quite a scene, totally different than the first festival we went to, which was more intimate, but seems very tame by comparison. Those who saw some of the bull fighting reported that the fighting at the first festival had been much better. Even, Nevada, who has been to many of these festivals in her seven trips to Guizhou was quite blown away by the day’s activities.

At a couple points, bulls escaped on the other side, jumped and climbed over the moat, scattering us and the rest of the crowd and dancers. Lee fell down as the first bull escaped, but four men helped her up immediately. After four hours or so, we made our way through the crowd (not an easy task) and back to the bus. For the first time, it began to drizzle, but we were able to find shelter and wait for our bus. Though I have not commented upon it, we’ve been incredibly fortunate with the weather so far.

We were scheduled to do a home stay tonight, but because of the six-hour unanticipated stop at the festival, we decided not to do the home stay, to the relief of all of us. While I’m sure the home stay would have been interesting /fun, at least in retrospect, this was a good night not to do one.

The hotel we are staying at in Sandu is quite fine, though I do have a walk up to my fourth floor room. Unlike at the guest house we stayed at several nights ago, which was a walk up to the third floor, I did not carry my luggage up, as I’m still paying a bit of a price in my back from the guest house (though it’s better today, after Sandy loaned me me the miracle spray that she bought in Beijing).

Out for dinner (yes, we tried Chinese again) at an excellent restaurant. I have to admit that, though I generally am not looking forward to going out to dinner, I’ve enjoyed them much more than I’ve expected to. Back to the hotel to finish the blog and download more photos. Also sprayed more of Sandy’s magic spray, which she bought for me at a pharmacy across from the hotel,

(Note: If you are reading this blog regularly, you may want to look back at yesterday’s post quickly, because some of the photos may have appeared after the time you saw it.)

Stilted Parades and Dong Villages

November 4

Breakfast at hotel, then add our laundry to the luggage and take off in the bus for another Miao village. Later find out that, because of the power outage yesterday, our laundry is “damp.”. This means that my blue jeans may be dry by Thanksgiving.

Stopped at another interesting market in “old Chongjiang.” On our way back to the bus, we ran into a parade of young children in traditional Dong costume, some on stilts and some playing horns (lushengs) swaying back and forth, promoting a festival that will take place in a few days in a Dong village. Took photos in market and of parade that I never would have taken before this trip.






Drive along the Pearl River to the Dong village of Yingtan. Lee speaks of his growing up. Did not speak Chinese until 12 years old. He spoke Miao. Was being trained to be a shaman, but his father did not want that, so he was taken to the town where his father worked. There a teacher whose parents were suspected to be American spies took a liking to him and he began to learn Chinese and English.

Youngtan is a very nice looking village. Lee explains that the government has spent money to retain it as a traditional village. After walking around town for a couple hours, we stop and have a lunch of spicy noodles and beer in the town drum tower, where we mix with the old men and little kids from the village. The drum tower is the center of the village, where the beating of a drum heralded a significant event or danger to the people.






We move on to another Dong village, this one not supported specially by the government, and the contrast is rather stark. This one has unpaved streets, and the buildings are much more run down. The people are very friendly, though, and we have a good time walking around and photographing for about an hour and a half. Nevada becomes great friends with a woman in her seventies, who invites her for dinner. Sheila rounds up about twenty little kids in a big room and has them singing songs, repeating lines after she sings them.

In general, there is not too much to write about these villages. We just see people and how they live, which is quite fascinating.

The drive to our hotel, mercifully, is on a real highway. Staying at the same hotel we stayed at several nights ago in Dongjiam. Bused out to a restaurant for what may have been the best Chinese meal we’ve had. Getting used to the fare and more adept at handling the chop sticks, but may head straight for Five Guys when I get home.

Finished downloading and looking at photos, and completing today’s blog entry.

Square-framed Hat Yaos

November 3

Set off after breakfast for 3-hour drive to Jingling and Baiwen villages, to see Bingban Yao, Yao who wear square-framed hats, as Nevada calls them. 58 households and 270 people in the Baiwen village. According to Lee, there are only three Yao villages like this one in China.

Nevada talks about technical issues in photography. For most of the group, this is familiar territory, but not so for me. Talk about white balance and bracketing, for example. As with much of what’s being talked about on the trip, some stuff seeps in and some doesn’t. I’m okay with that, though, as seeping is sorta my aim for this trip.

Hiked up to the village, where we spent the next 3 1/2 hours, primarily photographing young girls getting into and wearing their colorful and distinctive local costumes. This is not a festival, so they are doing it for us and, I’m sure, will be compensated in some way.

Though, in principle, this is not very different from what we did yesterday, which I did not care for, I have a much different reaction. Part of it is that it all unfolds more slowly, and does not involve them having to first get out of costume and then get dressed again, which felt very uncomfortable as an observer. Here there are others around, mothers who help their daughters get dressed and other villagers, who we can photograph.






The other reason this feels different is that again we are broken into two groups, but this time I am in Nevada’s group. Watching her interact with the people and seeing how she approaches and photographs the happening is incredibly interesting and productive and leads me to get some images that I never would otherwise have. Many of these have to do with the positions she takes and the angles of the photographs, which turn routine photographs into much more interesting images. I’m including quite a few, both because they are quite colorful and to demonstrate what I mean by the angles.










After they dress, we are able to take close ups of the girls, as well as photos of them walking down the road towards us. Again I try the type of panning shots I took a couple days ago, and again, they are not quite successful.

We stop at a favorite funky restaurant of Nevada’s, but, because of the lateness of the hour (4PM), we have only beer and snacks from the bus. We set out for the hour and a quarter drive for the hotel. On the bus, I show Nevada a half dozen or so images from yesterday that I think have some merit. As she agrees, I am feeling that I can at least recognize a good image when is see it.

We arrive at the hotel at 6:15 to find candles in the lobby. The electricity is out. I elect not to walk up to my room on the sixth floor, but instead download images taken today to my iPad. At seven, electricity still out, we bus to a restaurant for quite a good meal. As usual, the ten of us, plus Nevada, sit at a large round table. The extensive dinner that has been ordered for us is served and passed on the rotating circular platter on the table. A goodly amount of wine and beer s consumed.

We return to the hotel much earlier than usual, time to finish this blog and review the photos. The laundry has not come ack yet, but presumably it will before we leave tomorrow morning.

Markets, Fancy Dressing and Rice Paddies

November 2

Down for breakfast in the hotel at 8 for our 9 o’clock departure.

We drive through beautiful hill country, with views of terraced rice paddies en route to High Mountain Black Miao market in village of Ting Dong. Market days, based on a lunar calendar, take place approximately once a week. We come upon a logging operation, where large logs are being stripped of bark by women carrying small babies on their backs, while men load the logs onto large open trucks.




We arrive in the market town and spend some two hours, wandering slowly through the market, which contains every kind of product, produce, animals, fish, etc. dress ranges from very traditional Miao to modern. Young girls dressed up to attract attention, old men smoking pipes, women playing mahjong. Would never take so much time or interact with so many people on a non-photography trip. Also interesting and instructive to see what others choose to photograph and from what position and angle. Lunch at a restaurant. I mix Chinese, peanut butter and beer.









After lunch, we head out to another village, Donglang where Lee has arranged for us to photograph two teenage girls in full Miao costume. They misunderstood and were in full costume when we arrived. Since Nevada wanted us to photograph them dressing, they had to take all of their costume off, then get dressed again for us, then pose in full costume.



We broke into two groups, then switched to photograph the other girl. Frankly, this got a bit boring, because it was staged, and I was happier just wandering around the town and photographing. Before leaving the town, we witnessed a tree in the center of town being chopped and pulled down.

We drove out of town to a place up in the mountains from which we could photograph the terraced rice fields in the late afternoon sun near Kongmingshan. Did this from several vantage points.




Headed back on 3-hour drive. Nevada told many war stories of travel in her early years. She was quite an adventurer and groundbreaker in the field of adventure and photo travel, but I found this far less interesting than hearing her talk about photography.

Of the things we did today, the market was by far the most interesting. Photographing models and the rice paddies was much less my thing, though I don’t regret having done them.

On the bus, Nevada spent some time with me flipping through the pictures I’ve downloaded to my iPad, and commenting quickly on them. She’s able to see immediately which she likes and which have possibilities, and which just don’t work. She had a few basic and very helpful suggestions for me that I can work on during the trip.

Staying at modern and comfortable Ao Yu Hotel in Congjiang. Quite good dinner in the hotel, though by the time we eat, around 10, I’m not all that hungry. Back to the room to wash underwear and socks, as we’ll be at this hotel two nights. driver will take in laundry tomorrow, but they will not do socks or underwear (in Africa, they call these “smalls”).

Wedding and non-Wedding


Good night’s sleep in our basic accommodations. Awoke early, as has been the case, and finished yesterday’s blog. Had my first experience with a non-Western toilet on this trip, and I can say, without hesitation, that the toilet seat is one of the great inventions of mankind, ranking just after the wheel (unless you happen to have to go to the bathroom, in which case it moves up to #1).

Lug the baggage down, then breakfast at 7:30 at a restaurant near the guest house, slurping noodles and eggs with chop sticks. A few photos around town, before taking off for long drive to wedding. Very interesting to hear Nevada talk about her philosophy of dealing with people in taking photos. We have wifi contact on the bus through a hotspot that Xue Biao has set up, somewhat sporadic, but able to check emails and to make blog posts, which is great and friggin’ amazing. A few stops for photos along way.




Plan (revised along the way, of course) was to stop at the village of a bride who was to leave to go to her groom’s village to get married. Then we were going to stop at another village of a different groom, to witness the arrival of his bride. This is apparently an auspicious day for marriages, according to the moon.

We stopped in village of Lelia and during lunch, Lee and Nevada found the bride, who had recently had a baby, in tears. The family of the groom had refused to accept the bride. There would be no wedding.

We went on to the second village, Bengli, where a group called the 72 Dong Villages Dong live. Both the groom, Lin Gai, and bride, Yang Xia, from Gao Ping Village, are 17 years old. We spend a lot of time in the charming village, photographing a lot of different interesting people in their daily lives. We go up to the house of the groom, where we see a large entertainment center in purple and quite nice furniture that is the bride’s dowery.





We wait around for quite some time for the arrival of the bride. A procession of people arrives carrying gifts. In the procession is the bride, though we’re unaware of that and do not know who she is. Many, many loud firecrackers go off in rapid succession to salute the bride. We go up to the house and photograph her. She looks about twelve years old and is a bit overwhelmed with all the photography.

During the past two days, we’ve seen many different hair styles:




We learn that it is going to be quite some time before the celebration and, although we are invited to stay for dinner, we decline. Groom took off on a motorcycle to dont-know-where. After going up to see the area where the banquet will be held, we walk back through the village to the bus, for our long almost 4-hour ride back (even though it is only about 60 kilometers). En route home, I download edit and weed out the day’s photos. I have a much more critical view of my photos, as well as different criteria by which to judge them.

We arrive at the hotel, the Dongxiangmi Grand Hotel in Rongjiang where dinner has been ordered, including cold Tsing Tao beer. Bags have been taken up to the room, and a hot shower awaits after dinner. Life is good.

This day is a great example of how everything can”go wrong,” and you can still have a terrific day, if you are open to experiencing what’s in front of you.

Water Buffalo Fights and Dances

October 31

I’m trying to post this from a wifi hot spot on a bus in Ghizou, so if they get posted out of order and/or without photos, please excuse me, and check back another time to check for photos.

Halloween. Looking forward to grandchildren photos, in costume, though it may take some time before I can access them. Hope that the day is not marred by the effects of hurricane Sandy, as we’ve been hearing if it’s devastating impact, Evan told me in Beijing that his 37-year old sister, Catherine, was dressing up as a binder of women, ala Mitt.

Early departure, and breakfast at a restaurant outside the hotel. Small, open store/restaurant. Sit on plastic stools, bowl of broth with noodles, add scrambled eggs. Surprisingly tasty. Walked around and missed photo ops because left camera on bus. Won’t make that mistake again. Was able to take some pictures on my iPhone.

Drive on to our first hill tribe of Ghuizo experience, a festival, a hay rice harvest festival. No set date, doesn’t happen. Festival today is for the amusement of the ancestral spirit Will be water buffalo fights, competition, but not for money. Two villages, Zhanghan and Baiso, at least 200 families each, plus others will come to see. People are short skirt black Miao, with tin embroidery. In minority areas, people are allowed two children.

We travel along Chiang Shui Jiang, the clean river, with villages on hillside. Boats fishing in river. Very overcast again. Scene is reminiscent of hills and river ofGuilin,where we went on our first trip. Intoxicating fishing, substance put in water that dazes fish and makes them easier to catch.

Nevada talks about photography, both philosophy and technique. Fascinating, but shows how little thought I’ve given to both elements. Hearing about it, though, and having time to think about it and put it into action should help. Maybe.

Long drive, most of it on paved, but rather bumpy roads, through hilly, scenic country enshrouded in very overcast weather (and, therefor, not really scenic). After a couple hours, though, the sun begins to come out, then emerges in earnest. Nevada sees the sun as creating problems for us as photographers, since it will create very contrasty scenes and shadows on people’s faces. The road turns to dirt and progress is slow.

Eventually, after more than three hours, we reach an open area in the village where many have begun to gather on slopes surrounding a large, basically oval open area. The crowd ranges from old men with great faces to young women and children, very few of them in costume at this point.

We climb up a hill to a school, where we have lunch in one of the rooms. Though a Chinese spread is available, most of us opt for cheese and crackers and peanut butter. We leave stuff in the school room (our baggage travels in a separate truck each day), and climb down the hill around the open area for the “bull fights.” Thousands of firecrackers going off, we later hear “to honor the bulls.” The bulls are actually water buffaloes and there are no matadors, the fights being between pairs of these huge beasts, who lock horns, butt heads, push against one another and try to injure the other by twisting the head and catching the other with a horn. After a period, men rope a leg of each buffalo and try to pull them a part. Generally, many men are required on each bull, giving the appearance of a tug of war, though the bulls are not attached. Once separated, the men try to gain control of the bull by slipping a rope or pole through the nose ring on the bull. This can by quite a trick, and not infrequently the bulls escape and run unpredictably through a quickly scattering crowd. We do not see anyone injured, though certainly this must happen from time to time. I view this as a bit more excitement than optimum.



After watching for an hour or so, our group walks to the village, which turns out to be a pretty decent hike, up and down hill. The village is very picturesque, with wooden structures topped by roofs of different colors. On our way to the village we encounter many women and children, heading back to the open area for dances. We visit the very comfortable home of the head man, with a living room with TV. We are, we are told, the first foreigners ever to visit the village, which I assume is true. Certainly there are none in evidence all day. We’ve worked up a sweat from the hike by the time we return to the open oval, where the water buffalo fights are still going on.


When they finally stop, the dancing begins. Seven men with very long, wooden instruments with poles play a continuous and repetitive, but not unpleasant, tune, as villagers dance around and around in a circle. The central characters are young, unmarried girls who wear elaborate embroidered costumes and large silver necklaces and headdresses. Others circle, too, though, old men, young men, and fathers and mothers, carrying costumed young children (in a sense, appropriate, for us, to this Halloween day). I try to use panning, as Nevada explained it to us on the bus, but get mainly blur. This is not surprising, as she says that mainly it does not work, and you are fortunate to get one good shot. Despite probably forty or more tries, I was not fortunate. I also discovered some basics of positioning, as I was standing in a position at which it was difficult to get anything with the dancers’ faces, until a spotted Nevada and a few others standing at a more strategic position.



Bus ride to a guest house, where I lug the suitcase up to my third floor room. The room itself looks clean and okay. The bathroom, however, is not The Peninsula. No light, a non-Western toilet (hole) and no shower to speak of. But it’s only one night.

Download photos to the iPad, which takes quite a while, then down to dinner. Not very hungry, so just take some eggs and greens in my bowl to go with several cups of weak beer, topped off by some chocolate candy that Nevada passes around.

Back upstairs, I look through my photos. With my now-elevated standards, I don’t have anything great, though I do have quite a number that would be okay for the old me/photographer. A very fascinating day. Nevada used the word “authentic,” and I think that captures it. A privilege to be able to experience something like this.

Setting Forth

October 30

Buffet breakfast at hotel. Rearranged bags (took way too much) and they were picked up outside the room at 9 AM. In lobby, met the four group members who did not arrive until late last night, Lee (from California), Sally (from New Mexico), Sandy (from Colorado)and Jan (pronounced, “Yon,” from Boston and England). Bags loaded, and we boarded the bus for the ride to Kaili, about three hours. Members of the group are “age appropriate.”. I’m probably towards the high end, but not the oldest, and there are no “kids.” Does not appear to be a “loser” in the group.

Nevada talks on bus, both about the trip and photography. She says that we are primarily travelers, and the object is to have a good time. She talks about photo etiquette when traveling in a group, what to do and not do. The trick in photography is not to be seduced by an interesting subject, but to create an interesting image. She also talks about photographing in low light conditions, which we will encounter. Nevada’s hope for herself is to get one good image a day, and, by the end of the 2-week trip, to have three images that she is happy with.

The group is more experienced in photography and knows much more about (and carries) far more equipment than I do. There was a lot of interest in my Sony NEX7, and some seemed envious of the light load I was carrying. Sally also has a NEX7 along, but just got it and is not using it as her main camera on the trip.

Our guide, Lee, who lives in this area, spoke about what we’ll see. He has personal connections with tribal headmen that will get us to places, and see things, that others can’t see. He’s also arranged for us to go to a local wedding. He talked about the many different kinds of Miao people, likening them to the many types of Indian tribes in the U.S.

Stopped for lunch and walked around town while lunch was being prepared. Very overcast, but not rainy, comfortable temperature. Located store with umbrella hats that look goofy, but most of us bought (for $2.50). Here’s Lee, from San Francisco, trying on her hat.They should come in handy to facilitate photography in the rain. Lunch was very good, more chopstick practice.

Driving on, very major construction of new roads and city being built on huge scale. Long, very colorful murals along walls, depicting minorities in area. Stopped at a small village of about 40 households called Shiching and walked around for about an hour, photographing people, the town, a water buffalo in his “house” and the burial mound of an ancestor.




Drove on to Kaili, where we stopped at a recently-renovated museum on Miao and Dong culture and history. While it was way too much to absorb, it gave us a bit of an advance taste of the costumes and festivals we’ll be seeing on the rest of the trip, and a bit of a feel for the culture.

We have been heading east out of Guiyang and, instead of staying in Kaili, which was the (revised) plan, we are heading farther east and will stay in a small village tonight that will get us closer to the festival we’re going to tomorrow. True to Nevada’s promise, the itinerary is flexible, and may well change again. We are driving through hilly country, with terraced fields that would be very pretty in the sun, but not so much in the heavy overcast. Nice to be able to write the blog and download photos on the bus.

Stopped at a modern Wenzhou International Hotel in Jianhe, which seems quite fine. Plugged in devices and went right down for dinner.another quite good dinner, though all the meals seem to be pretty-much the same, which could begin to wear pretty thin soon.
Conversation over dinner, which is always at a round table for eleven is easy and fun.

Back to the hotel by 9 PM. An early start tomorrow, 7:30, which will be our first real full day of the trip.

Group Therapy

October 29

Final breakfast at hotel, and check out.

Mr. Pi shows up on time, Evan checking twice to make sure. Friendly guy, Mr. Pi (pronounced “pea”) and able to communicate in English. Uneventful trip to airport, arriving two hours early. Long lines, and unclear which one I need to be in. Had been unsuccessful in trying to print out boarding pass at hotel.

After some 15 minutes in one line, I ask a Chinese fellow with U.S. passport where I need to be. He very kindly takes me around the airport asking various people questions and finally approaching airline people at a counter not in operation, and they check my bags and issue boarding pass. Not sure I’d have made it without this fellow’s extensive and kind help. May he be rewarded, either in this life, or another. Hope to honor that kindness by showing similar concern for foreigners I may encounter from time to time in the U.S.

Through security, I have unsuccessful attempts to get money from an ATM and make an equally unsuccessful effort to sign into Wifi. Isn’t travel in a country you don’t speak the language fun? Now at gate awaiting flight to Guiyang on Air China.

Reflections on Beijing. Seems much less “foreign” than it did twelve years ago. Looks like a modern Western city, with excellent and distinctive architecture mixed with some basic fairly ugly older stuff. Pollution is considerably worse, as will happen when you replace bicycles with cars.

Being with Evan made for a unique Beijing experience and an opportunity to get some feel for what’s happening, though the details are way beyond me. Hell, I can’t even pronounce the names of the main characters. Evan’s hospitality converted what was to be a stop to get over jet lag into a quite memorable couple of days.

Plane is pretty-much full, and with Chinese. Almost nobody speaking English. About a 3-hour flight. Spent a good part of it reading Barbara Demick’s excellent book, Nothing to Envy, and learning much about Korea of which I was ignorant.

Arrival about half an hour late, raining but not hard. Met by Lee, part of Nevada’s team, who introduced me to Randy, a very gregarious guy from Toronto, who has taken many photography trips, but not with Nevada. I think he will prove to be a good travel companion. Checked into a large Sheraton, very acceptable and very like Sheratons the world over.

Relaxed for a while, then discovered there was wifi available in the lobby, so I checked emails. Around six, Nevada and six of the ten group members, plus Lee, and Xue Biao (pronounced “shway bee-ah-o) had drinks together in the lobby and Nevada talked about the trip, telling us that there’d already been several changes in the itinerary. This did not come as a surprise, since she’d said that would happen in the materials. Nevada has a very nice manner.


Besides Randy, there’s Sheila, Suzette, Evelyn and Dayton. Seems like a very congenial, low-key group, several of whom have traveled with Nevada before and looks as if we’ll get on very well together. Short bus ride over to a Chinese restaurant, where we had a good meal of many courses, pre-ordered, with Nevada. I think using chopsticks will cut down on my food consumption, which is a good thing.

Rode back to the hotel and, because I hadn’t taken any photos all day, I wandered over by the river to take some night shots, several of which are below.





I intend to try to post this blog, then retire for the evening by around ten. Feel good about prospects for a good group experience, but tomorrow will be the first real test.

This may very well be the last blog post for two weeks, because of lack of Internet access. If so, see you in Singapore. And good luck to us all in the presidential election.

Something There is that Loves a Wall

October 28

Another great, and large, buffet breakfast at the hotel.

Evan arranged for me to be picked up by Mr. Zhang, Mr. Pi’s nephew. Pi had to attend a wedding, but will take me to the airport tomorrow. Evan estimated abbout an hour and a half drive to The Great Wall.

Miscommunication with Mr. Zhang. I thought he’d drive right up and pick me up. He was waiting someplace in front. Took two calls from front desk finally to connect, 25 minutes late. He drives a small, regular cab and speaks very little English. Hope this does not turn out to be more of an adventure than I’d bargained for. (I can, and am, writing this on the way to the Wall.)

The estimate of 1 1/2 hours was not bad to get into the vicinity of the Wall, but on this beautiful Sunday, it seems that everyone in the country had decided to visit the Wall. Road construction on the narrow uphill road left traffic at a literal standstill for long periods, and I began to despair of ever getting to (or leaving) the Wall. Finally, we managed to cram into parking lot a ways down the hill and I convinced myself that I would (might) be able to find Mr. Zhang when I returned.

The Great Wall spans some 5500 miles and was built over a period of about 2000 years, from the Warring States Period, 476-221 BC to the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644. The Great Wall was originally built in the Spring and Autumn, and Warring States Periods as a defensive fortification by the three states: Yan, Zhao and Qin. It went through constant extensions and repairs in later dynasties. It began as independent walls for different states when it was first built, and did not become the “Great” wall until the Qin Dynasty. Emperor Qin Shihuang succeeded in his effort to have the walls joined together to fend off the invasions from the Huns in the north. Since then, the Wall has served as a monument of the Chinese nation throughout history.

The uphill walk, running a gauntlet of Wall souvenir stands, was steep and I determined, definitely wisely, to invest fourteen bucks to ride the cable car up and back to the Wall. My recollection is that we hiked it with the Segals. If that recollection is correct, and if we were at the same point on the Wall, all I can say is that twelve years makes a hell of a difference.

The Wall is every bit as spectacular as I remembered it; indeed, perhaps more so in the surrounding Fall colors. It is such a monumental structure that it seems almost a part of nature, rather than something created by man. Hard to pick which photos to include, but here are a few.




The Great Wall is one of those sights in the world that, no matter how many photos you’ve seen, or what your expectations are, you can’t be disappointed. For that reason, I chose to see it again, unlike, say, The Forbidden City, which, though terrific, did not beckon for a revisit. Other things I’d put into the same category as The Great Wall: the Grand Canyon, Michelangelo’s David, the Ajanta caves (in India),The Acropolis, life on the Ganges River in Varanasi, Tiger’s Nest (in Bhutan), Abu Simbel (in Egypt) and Machu Picchu. The Taj Mahal, while great, would not make my cut. Petra would be a very close call, and I might give it the benefit of the doubt. The huge sculpted heads on Easter Island would be close, too.

As I’d seen the Wall before, and because it was crowded and I was a bit concerned about finding Mr. Zhang, I did not spend a long time up on the Wall, perhaps 30-40 minutes. Running the commercial gauntlet downhill, I was offered Great Wall t-shirts, two for a dollar (6 Yuan), but it turned out that the ones I was being shown were cotton t-shirts, which cost 50 Yuan. I left a number of vendors, but finally settled on 20 Yuan for one (a bit over three bucks). Not too bad, but Carol would have gotten it for 10 Yuan, or walked away content without anything.


Amazingly, getting out of there was easy and the ride back quick, until we hit heavy traffic near Beijing. I recalled that on our first visit to the Wall, on the initial stage on the way back, we rode bikes for the first time on the trip, an easy introduction, because it was virtually all down hill. All in all, it was definitely worth seeing the Wall again. And I might very well do it a third time, for sure if it were with grandchildren.

Arrived back at the hotel around 3:15 PM, and relaxed, answered emails and made a few preparations for tomorrow’s departure, before Evan and Sarabeth picked me up at 5:30. (Didn’t need to blog, as I’d done that in the taxi, en route home.). We taxied over to a very funky bookstore/coffee house, a center of ex-pat activity in Beijing.


There we met with a Stanford professor, Andrew Ng, who is promoting a consortium of American universities who are offering free, online course materials to students around the world under the name Coursera. Evan is interested in what Andrew is doing in China and conducted an interview with the professor that Sarabeth and I listened in on. The professor then met with approximately twenty Chinese Cousera students, and Evan listened in.


Taxi to Duck de Chine, very attractive restaurant only a couple blocks from my hotel. Talk about Evan’s book, which will be an examination of the tensions between individual ambition and autocracy in areas of financial growth, truth and belief, as seen through the lives of people Evan has followed over several years in China. He has a 9-month leave to write it.


We are joined by Barbara Demick, a good friend of Evan and Sarabeth, who is the Bejing bureau chief of the LA Times and wrote an amazing book on North Korea called Nothing to Envy,. The book won the U.K.’s top non-fiction prize, the Samuel Johnson award, in 2010 and was a finalist for both the National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Awards. I have downloaded a sample of Nothing to Envy and begun reading it. And it’s terrific. Her earlier book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood is being republished in 2012.

Sarabeth ordered a great dinner, featuring duck, shrimp, dumplings and eggplant. Great conversation over dinner. Evan and Barbara have a deep knowledge of goings on in all aspects of Chinese life, from politics to the arts, including dissident artist Wei-Wei. Barbara’s eleven year old son, Nick, lives with her.


Walk back to The Peninsula. Glimpses of Beijing by night.


Evan and Sarabeth plan to move to the DC area. After seven years in China, Evan seems ready, though he expects a big culture shock. He thinks that his China experience will allow him to cover the U.S. with fresh eyes, and that the political scene in the U.S. is one of the few things that rivals China for interest. I’m hoping that Evan, Sarabeth, Jodi and Robby will hit it off and become good friends.

Off to start the adventure tomorrow. Though neither have been there, both Evan and Sarabeth report that Ghizhou (pronounced “Gway-Joe”) is supposed to be among the most interesting places in China, and a spot that not many folks get to. First day will just involve arrival, meeting the group and some orientation.

Of Bird’s Nests and Eggs

October 27

Some difficulty finding the person who was supposed to pick me up at the airport, but managed to connect after about half an hour. The 45-minute ride to the very upscale and beautiful Peninsula Hotel was traffic free, and check-in went smoothly. Able to post my first blog from China and check and answer emails, though access to some NY Times links appear to be blocked. Below, detail from hotel lobby.


Slept decently and down for excellent and extensive buffet breakfast, before Evan Osnos came by at 9. Spent a quite delightful day with Evan and, in part, with Sarabeth. It’s difficult to explain, except to say that it was a terrific slice of life in Beijing. We started by taxiing to Evan’s old apartment area where we walked around. No English on the signs, past vegetable sellers, migrant day workers with hand made signs, barbers,


dentists (who, for some reason, would not let me photograph them), checkers players,


a large market area where Evan and Sarabeth used to buy virtually everything, past a homemade basketball hoop,


by a lake with fishermen,


then up a large bell tower with very steep steps. Evan is fluent in Chinese, and so chats everyone up. Stopped for lunch at a small Vietnamese restaurant, where Sarabeth met us, and Evan ordered an assortment of their favorite dishes.

After lunch, Evan and I taxied to the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic structure and inside the very impressive and architecturally interesting stadium, which seems to be something of a white elephant, being so cavernous that the soccer team refuses to play in there, because the arena would always appear at least half empty. But the large, public area around the stadium appears to be used quite well for skateboarding and strolling.

From there we taxied to near the house that Evan and Sarabeth now rent in an area bordered by a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, a Confucian Temple and fortune tellers. We had coffee with Sarabeth and chatted for about an hour. China is very much more built up than I remember it 12 years ago. The bicycles that dominated traffic then are barely noteworthy now, replaced by cars and motorized bikes. Streets seem wider, more gracious.

Difficult to capture in the blog, but what made the day, was the steady stream of conversation with Evan (and Sarabeth), ranging from both our families to Evan’s fascinating assignments–interviews with the Dahli Lama, covering the nuclear plant problems in Japan, a piece on Rich Daley, stationed for a couple years in the Middle East while with the Chicago Tribune, 6 weeks in Burma, including being smuggled from China into areas of hostility in the north of Burma, and more–not to mention much discussion of the puzzle/contradiction that is China today, combining enormous economic progress with equally enormous corruption and gangland-like activity. Evan says that the Chinese are not surprised by their newfound growth and success, viewing it as returning to their natural place, which they occupied for two thousand years except for an aberrant couple hundred years. He expects that any changes will be slow, as the Chinese view with alarm what has happened to Russia and “walk carefully on the stones when they wade across a river.” Sarabeth is delightful, and has a responsible position in development for teach for China, modeled on teach for America.

Evan hailed a taxi, which took me back to the hotel, where I relaxed and blogged, then took a taxi to a concert at “The Egg,” a modern concert hall, surrounded by a moat-like body of water. Taxi dropped me on the wrong side, so I had a hell of a time figuring out how to get in. Concert hall and building are very modern and quite spectacular. The concert was varied and good; very lively overture by a Chinese composer, Bruch Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Notable differences from U.S.: orchestra comes onto stage together to applause (rather than wandering in and tuning up), encore by violin soloist in first half (encouraged by audience staccato applause and foot stomping by the concertmaster), two orchestra encores after the Dvorak and flowers presented to the conductor, and–best of all–couple next to me, talking, was told twice by usher to can it (my Chinese translation).

Walked a distance from the Egg to try to get a taxi unsuccessfully. Was getting chilly so agreed to pay way too much to a guy in a car. But I’d paid less than I’d expected to for the ticket, and I did get back. Club sandwich dinner, with a beer in the lobby, live jazz playing nearby. Worked on blog in bar, and intend now to go up to finish.

Relatively little picture taking, limited to local scenes, a sample of which are above. I’ll end with the obligatory cute kid shot.



October 25-26

Okay, looked as if we were going to get off on time, but now we’re sitting on the runway because of weather, waiting to take off on the 6570-mile, 13-hour flight to Beijing. Fortunately, it turns out that this is a short delay, and we take off exactly an hour late.

I could read one of the many choices I’ve loaded onto my iPad, including The Garlic Ballads, by the recently-annointed Chinese Nobel laureate, Mo Yan, a grim story of which I’ve read about a quarter, or a book I probably will not understand, called, The Age of Insight, the Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. So, now I guess you understand why I’m not reading, right?

Blogging is a bit of an odd endeavor. I think of this as primarily a record for myself, a journal. But, of course, I know that you’re along (though perhaps not for long, if I keep this up). I’m going to trust that you’ll be able to skim/skip the personal reflections, if you’re not interested. I’ll even give you a signal IN ALL CAPS when I return to the trip at hand.

Getting off on a trip like this involves working hard to pack only about half again what you’ll need, rather than twice. In this case, I had to make some decisions I’m not normally faced with. Do I follow Nevada’s advice that you must bring a second camera (in case of malfunction of the first). I did, despite the fact that if my camera malfunctions, I am going to be one very unhappy dude, because I bought the new Sony NEX7, just for this trip. Do I lug a laptop? Hell no. A tripod? No. Take toilet paper, as suggested? Uh-huh. Anyway, eventually, time runs out, and so you make decisions, by default or otherwise.

And there’s always some crisis. Let me say that whichever one of you stole or hid the walking shoes I’d intended to take on this trip, that’s not funny. Carol and I, and Barbara, our housekeeper who knows where everything is, looked all over for them. And both daughters confirmed that I had not left them at their house. So, after lunch, I ran out to buy a new pair (pretty nice, actually). The good thing about expenditures such as this on a major trip is that they can’t possibly impact significantly the overall trip cost.



In the time before leaving on a trip, you get so wrapped up in the minutiae of preparation, that it’s easy to lose sight of why you decided to do the trip in the first place. I’ve now had time to read through the itinerary again, and I remember why. It’s going to be an amazing trip of festivals, eating, drinking, markets, dances, songs, bullfights, huge bronze drums, costumes, hot spring baths, 2000-year old towns, shamans, rituals, horse races, crafts and experiencing different cultures in a way that few people have the privilege of doing.

While, basically, this is a photography trip, it’s bookended by a few days in Beijing and Singapore( where, among other things, I’ll bask in the luxury to which, rather obnoxiously, I’ve become accustomed). To take just Beijing for now, I’ll be staying at the Peninsula and I’m quite excited that I’ll be able to see something out of the ordinary, because of a great connection. I’m going to be shown around by Evan Osnos (and his wife, Sarabeth), the son of my college classmate, Peter Osnos. Peter and I lived in a large house that we rented with four other classmates senior year at Brandeis. I won’t go into that, but ask me, sometime.

Peter has had a distinguished career in journalism and publishing that has encompassed working for I.F.Stone, Newsweek, the Washington Post, Random House (where, most notably, he published my book The Essential Book of Interviewing) and at the company he founded, Public Affairs, which has published a wealth of outstanding, non-fiction titles by an astounding range of prominent authors.

And Evan, in his thirties, has already built an enviable reputation as a star reporter for The Chicago Tribune, and now as head of the China bureau for The New Yorker. Evan has graciously agreed to be my guide and facilitator for my two days in Beijing, and has mapped out a detailed schedule.

Okay, I am now going to steal some assorted facts about China from Wikipedia (somewhat edited and reworked). This is typical of the type of depth and intellectual engagement that I bring to these trips. Hey, how about a little credit, though? I didn’t have to tell you I was stealing this stuff from Wikipedia, did I?

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), is the largest country in East Asia. It is the world’s most populous country, with a population of over 1.3 billion. Covering approximately 9.6 million square kilometres, the country is the world’s second-largest country by land area (after Russia).

China is a single-party state governed by the Communist Party of China. It exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four directly controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), and two mostly self-governing special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). Its capital city is Beijing. The PRC also claims Taiwan—which is controlled by the Republic of China (ROC), a separate political entity—as its 23rd province.

The ancient Chinese civilization—one of the world’s earliest—flourished in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. China’s political system was based on hereditary monarchies, known as dynasties, beginning with the semi-mythological Xia of the Yellow River basin (approx. 2000 BC) and ending with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Since 221 BC, when the Qin Dynasty first conquered several states to form a Chinese empire, the country has expanded, fractured and been reformed numerous times. A history of the dynasties, while very interesting, would be beyond this blog.

The Republic of China, founded in 1911 after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, ruled the Chinese mainland until 1949. In the 1946–1949 phase of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang in mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on 1 October 1949. The Kuomintang relocated the ROC government to Taiwan, establishing its capital in Taipei. The ROC’s jurisdiction is now limited to Taiwan and several outlying islands.

Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, China has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy. As of 2012, it is the world’s second-largest economy, after the United States, by both nominal GDP and purchasing power parity (PPP), and is also the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods.

I’m going to call it quits on Wikipedia, at least for now. There’s much more, of course, and I may (or may not) try to sneak additional material in on later days.

Well, after blogging and dinner, I have only a bit over 5000 miles and less than eleven hours to go. Hope this pilot guy knows what he’s doing, as the monitor shows him heading for the North Pole. Maybe I should go up and point out the short cut; just head West across the damn Pacific Ocean. Time to try to get a little sleep, and, if not, maybe tackle the iPad books.

China Ahead

When I set out for China on the evening of the 25th, it will not be my first trip there. Back in 2000, Carol and I celebrated our 35th anniversary on a biking and hiking trip to China with our dear friends Eli and Phyllis Segal, whose wedding we’d attended a week before our own in June of 1965.

I look back on that 2000 trip with very fond, but bittersweet, memories, because Eli died some six years ago. Since, of course, I have no photos yet from the second China trip and want to try out adding photos to this blog. I’ll share two of my favorites from our first trip, the four of us drinking champagne (well, Carol has Coke) atop The Great Wall and Eli smiling broadly with his new peasant friend he’d met 5 minutes earlier.



So, I’m off in a couple days, and this is going to be a very different trip from those I’ve taken before. I am looking forward to it greatly, but with a tad of trepidation.

I’m going with a small group, led by a wonderful travel photographer, Nevada Wier. Spending a few minutes on her website, will show you why I say “wonderful.” Ten enthusiastic photographers will accompany Nevada and two Chinese friends for two weeks, visiting the hill tribes of Guizhou. As the trip focuses on photography, Carol will not be coming.

So why the tad of trepidation? This trip is far from the luxury travel that Carol and I have done. For example, we have never been asked to bring a sheet and pillow case along on our travels, as I am doing on this one. For the most part, we will be staying in very basic accommodations. So this trip may be a bit more of a real adventure – rather than the illusion of adventure that I generally shoot for in our luxury exotic travel. Nevada was very clear in her materials saying that this trip was not for everyone. I’m hoping that it is for me. And I actually have a high degree of confidence that it is.

The second reason for trepidation is the fear of being exposed as the decidedly amateur photographer that I am. That, too, is not a big fear, since I acknowledge it and expect that being in the company of Nevada and the others in the group will teach me a great deal that I hope will improve my work. The group aspect of the trip is also a slight concern, as I’ve been spoiled by traveling only with Carol and a few friends. But given the common interests of group members and the fact that they must be adventuresome souls to be taking a trip like this, I think that will work out fine, too. Who knows, I may even make a few new friends.

As, for the most part, I will be in rather remote places, it is likely that I will not be able to post things frequently (if at all) when I am on the trip. So you may be flooded with posts after I return. The two exceptions to this should be the few days that I’m spending before the group trip in Beijing and the few days I’m spending afterwards in Singapore, where I should have Internet access.

So, see you in Beijing.

Reflections and Ruminations

Well, I’ve read through the blog, so I can now confirm that it was another fabulous trip.

What made the trip so great? Here’s a list that is almost certainly incomplete:

1. The companionship among our group of five
2. The wonderful people we meet in Ghana, most of them by now old friends.
3. The complete immersion in the trip itself (for me, a relatively rare opportunity to stay in the moment for an extended period of time).
4. The sense that something good is coming out of all this.
5. A reality check on what is important in life.
6. The stimulating conversations that we had over meals, while driving, while we were observing and in debriefs. Many, but by no means all, of these conversations related to the purposes of the trip.
7. The exposure to a totally different world and culture.
8. The ability to learn and the humbling reminder of how little we know and/or understand.
9. The intellectual challenge of considering the issues involved.

This is not an easy trip. We cram an enormous amount into each day, and the days are lengthy. The travel is long, both getting over to Ghana and back, and the extensive car trips over bumpy roads or in heavy traffic. A great deal of mental energy is demanded, as well.

But it’s a true privilege to be able to participate in an adventure such as this. And, of course, it’s because of our good friends, Dick and Susie, that we’re able to do it.

As this is my third trip, it’s inevitable to (or at least damn hard not to) compare it to the prior two. Hands down the biggest difference was the involvement of Sola and Funmi Olopade. Having met with them several times and exchanged numerous emails over months, I knew that it would be great to have them along, but I did not appreciate how transformative and eye-opening it would prove. The trip would not have been nearly as productive, and certainly we would not have learned so much without them. Nor would it have been as much fun.

On the flip side of people participating, it would have been an even better trip, had Carol been along. Every one of the Ghanaians we’ve dealt with on prior trips said that they missed her, and so did I. Joe has pretty-much committed Carol to coming next year, as he told two chiefs and a district manager that she’d be there.

The meetings with governmental officials, and the much broader and more holistic approach to the issues were new and engaging. As schools were on break, I very much missed all of the school children who flocked around us at each stop in prior years. While it’s fine to see the buildings and meet with chiefs and governmental folks, as Susie says, this work is all about the children, and buildings without children are, well, just buildings.

A trip such as this leaves you spinning. There’s a lot of digesting and sorting out left to do. But I expect to begin regular contacts soon with the Kipharts and the Olopades, as well as the people in Ghana, to identify what we’ve learned and what that suggests in the way of future work. Indeed, there’s already been email exchanges with the Kipharts and the Olopades on next steps, even though the latter are now in Nigeria. This trip is far from over.

I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along. I’ve appreciated the comments I’ve gotten from many of you. Some have wondered how I have time to write the blog. I don’t. But I do it all for you. Actually, that’s a lie. I do it to try to get a handle on the experience, and as a substitute for a written journal. Okay, and I really like to be followed.

Hope to see you all in China in late October.

Accra on the Run

Pack and down for breakfast, where we are joined by Joe and Ida. Funmi and Sola left at 4:30 AM to catch a flight to Nigeria, so we said our goodbyes to them last night. Farewell hugs to Joe and Ida, and then a long drive to Accra, with the air conditioning not working. Breathing the outside air is more of a problem than temperature.

We drive to a kindergarten under construction near Peter’s home to be known as the Eduful/Kiphart International School. The school is being developed by Peter’s NGO, FASUL(short for family succor link) and funded by the Kipharts. Eventually, the school will cover all grades through middle school.

A short drive to Peter’s comfortable home, where we have a drink and visit with Peter’s cute 5-year old grandson, Felix, and daughter, Naomi.


We have now switched to the other vehicle, air conditioning working, in which we drive, through heavy traffic to the upscale Palm Beach Hotel, where we partake quickly of an excellent buffet lunch. A short drive from there is the Artist Alliance Gallery/Museum. Through the help of Dick’s friend in Chicago, Scott Meadow, we arranged to be shown around the gallery by Leo Glover, manager of the gallery and son of well-known Ghanaian painter, Aglade Glover. Leo received a business degree from USC, and was a terrific, low-key guide through the gallery. Two and a half hours later, we emerged from the gallery, having done substantial “damage,” but quite content with our purchases.

En route to the airport, we made a very short stop at a place that carves wooden coffins in the shapes of fish, buses, crabs, cameras and other items to reflect the work that the deceased did. We arrive at the airport five hours early. Sola left his iPad on the plane on the way here and Dick gets run all around the airport trying to track it down, finally learning that the damn plane had been cleaned in Monrovia! At least Sola didn’t leave shaving cream, or it would be gone for sure. Delta is to check with Monrovia and let Dick know whether they find the iPad.

We clear immigration and security without problems and go to the business class lounge for snacks and blogging.

School Farms and Pineapples

We talked more over breakfast about Sola’s project indoor pollution in Nigeria. As indicated earlier, indoor pollution causes two million deaths annually, mostly either women or young children, who spend time in the kitchen, either on their mother’s backs or by her side. Sola is now testing results among two groups in Nigeria, one of whom has been given clean burning ceramic stoves and the other group that is just being educated about the dangers and given suggestions as to how to avoid it. The problem has attracted the attention of The World Bank and others, and Sola has received a couple awards for his work.award for his work. In addition to the health benefits of controlling this problem, it has a number of unintended benefits, including, kids won’t have to fetch as much wood (because the ceramic stoves burn much more efficiently), girls will not be raped fetching wood, and their would be a huge affect on global warming. I told Sola that he needs to brand this problem, in order to make people aware of it and to attract funding to combat it, and suggested something like Indoor Pollution Syndrome (or IPS).

Even though it doesn’t fit in this spot, here’s a picture of Sola and Susie.


We drove to the Cape Coast School of the Deaf, with Joe and Ida. Both the Kipharts and the Kwartengs have actively supported the school, the latter through an NGO that they run to encourage school farms, in which students can learn agricultural and animal raising skills hands on. Joe and Ida are very proud that the school has won the national award for the best school farm the past two years, which is unprecedented. We toured the school farm with the Kwartengs and the head of the school.


Our next stop was at a very large (over 1500 students) technical high school, called Mankessim, where we saw a much larger school farm. Joe, a very charismatic figure, had the rapt attention of the students, when he preached to them about the benefits and opportunities in farming. We were also very interested to hear about and see a computer lab of more than 70 computers that had been presented to the school by parents of the students. I told Dick and Susie that next year it would be interesting for us to sit in on a class and they (and Peter) agreed.


Another sign (no pun intended) of things to come was a large sign at the school that was in both English and Chinese.


The Chinese have been very active throughout Africa, not always positively. An article in today’s local paper was headlined Ashanti under siege from Chinese miners, and told of illegal gold mining in the Ashanti area.

I was also able to do a small environmental improvement project, as I noticed one of Peter’s young men throwing a plastic water bottle on the ground (I’d also seen one flying out the window of the SUV, when we were following it. I told Peter who was quite upset by it, as he says he’s told them not to do that many times. He went over to the offender and quietly told him to go pick up the plastic bottle. A journey of a million miles ……..

The rest of the day was spent on matters relating to Dick and Joe’s very impressive pineapple operations. First we went to an area of approximately 200 acres, where their first crop had recently been harvested and sold to France. Then we drove on to another area of 2000 acres, where we saw people working, and were able to try planting a pineapple ourselves, not at all an easy task.





We then went to meet with a chief of chiefs and another chief, who had sold Joe the first 2000 acres and with whom terms had been reached for another 2000 acres. (By the way, the chief of chiefs, has a day job; he’s an accountant in Accra.) They wanted Dick and Joe to move quickly in purchasing the land and employing local people, but Joe has not wanted to rush spending the money until they were ready to use the land. Relationships between Joe and the chiefs was very friendly.


It’s a matter of our lack of understanding that Dick and I later discovered that the man who had sat front and center, wore a large gold watch and had done almost all of the speaking, was the chief of chiefs, when in fact he was only his mouthpiece. Funmi and Sola had understood that the man wearing brighter colors and sitting off to the side was the big chief.

At the insistence of the chiefs, we drove over to meet in a large conference room with the district manager. This was a waste of time, but interesting in its way. The district head blathered on about nothing in particular for a very long time. He took calls on his cell phone, twice, during the meeting. When one of the manager’s administrative cronies spoke and said they’d need information from Joe, Joe pretty much tore his head off. I complimented Joe afterwards in not calling the guy a “bureaucratic twit” and he confirmed that that was pretty-much what he had said to him

After arriving in Cape Coast, a couple hours drive from the district manager’s office, we travelled a long way over a bumpy road to a secluded restaurant on the beach. There we had a very good buffet dinner, joined by Joe and Ida, and their daughter, Lydia. For dessert, we sampled some of the delicious pineapple grown by Greenfields, Dick and Joe’s pineapple venture. After dinner everybody offered heartfelt toasts and comments about the amazing trip we’d had, the friendship of the group, and the prospects for very significant change, long term, based on the work being done and considered. I think we all were quite moved to be part of this really extraordinary group.

While others might rest, I had my blog to do.

Kangaroos and Dancers

Final breakfast at The Four Villages Inn and goodbyes to our hosts, Charity and Chris. We enjoy this vey cozy place. It’s like coming back home annually.

We set out into the normal heavy traffic and our birthday boy, Dick (I won’t tell you his age, but it rhymes with heaven-tea son), is not at all happy that we’ve added a stop to the itinerary. Fortunately, the rest of us are willing to cut the crabby old guy a little slack today.

To simulate the long, trafficy ride, I’ll tell you a little about the Ghana roadside. Displayed outside are goods of every type imaginable, ranging from small food stands to furniture of all types to windows to caskets.


The influence of religion is everywhere. Trucks and autos have sayings stenciled on them such as God is Able, God’s Gift or Dependable God. The shops bear similar notions. Among those I noticed were: God is My Helper Decorator, Jehovah Plumbing, God is Able Carpentry Shop, God’s Way Computers, Choose Jesus Beauty Salon, Hand of God Stationery Depot, Be Holy Electric, Fair Heaven Herbal Shop, No King as Allah Enterprise, Thank You Jesus Phones & Accessories, God First Cosmetics, and, my personal favorite, Good Father Unisex Fashion Design (I think I’m going to start franchising those when I get back home). Schools also show the religious influence, Oasis of Love School. Go you fighting Oasis of Love tigers!

We reach our destination, the Supereso District Maternity Hospital, which Dr. Annie and Funmi have pushed us to see (over Dick’s protest. We are met and shown around by
Abeena Boateng, who runs The Millennium Cities medical operations in subsaharan Africa. Funmi knows Abeena and has contacted her by email to arrange this. When I ask Funmi how she knows Abeena, she says, “I know everyone.”. This is not boasting; it’s true.


In this clean facility–we have to wash our hands and wear slippers and hairnets to enter, mothers kept 48 hours instead of 6-12 in Dr. Annie’s small maternity ward. By keeping watch on them, they are able dramatically to reduce infant mortality, which is high in the first 30 days and often not reported. Babies are not named for week, because they may not survive. The facility emphasizes a “kangaroo program”, which has mothers holding babies close to themselves, sharing body heat, avoiding hypothermia, and also helping bonding between mother and child. They teach mothers how to breast feed. The facility is another good example of Global Health, as it was built by Israel, who also provided training for the nurses.


As we enter the car for the long ride to our next stop, even Dick has to admit that this turned out to be more interesting than he’d anticipated. And Abeena will be a valuable contact for the future. She also provides training for kindergarten teachers.

In the SUV, Sola reads us an article from his iPhone about a very large public health worker initiative in the US, so perhaps we’re catching up with Ghana and the rest of the world. En route we also have a chance to read through the amazingly candid report we were given yesterday by the district with comprehensive statistics on income, water, health, etc and analyses of what has gone wrong and why. The report was prepared by a national commission and, in it’s candor, is unlike any you’d find in the US.

Our ride is some three or four hours, some of it, because of a short cut, over extremely bumpy. bone-jarring roads. We are all happy to arrive at Mansokwaa. Here we are treated to the type of full-blown ceremony that we’ve witnessed in past years, with extensive speechifying and a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new block of school rooms donated by friends of the Kipharts. The community expresses its gratitude, and at the same time asks for additional funds (again, typical of what we’ve seen in past years).

The school facilities are decked out in a fresh coat of paint, and Sola cannot believe what has been accomplished here, in the middle of nowhere. Though school is out, all of the children are in attendance, along with many others in the community. The community has rented a sound system for the occasion (for which it collects donations during the ceremony), which blares very loud Ghanaian music, which women and children dance to. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, we all walk a short distance through a cocoa grove to see a small, even more remote village.




We pile pack into the SUV and head for Cape Coast, where we will spend the next two nights. Cape Coast used to serve as a jumping off point for the slave trade in the 19th century. On our first trip to Ghana, we visited the castle in which the slaves were held in horrific conditions before they were shipped out.

We are met at the hotel by Joe and Ida (reminder: if you’re having trouble identifying the characters, you can go back to my first post under Ghana, 2012, where they are identified). After a brief stop at the room, we go to the outside deck, where Joe and Ida have arranged a great birthday surprise for Dick, a performance by the dancers from the School for the Deaf, which Dick and Susie have supported. Joe and Ida have persuaded the leader, the drummers and the dancers to come back before school has started to perform. Carol and I have enjoyed the inspirational performances by these young people in each of the last two years.




After the performance we have the birthday cake the Kwartengs have ordered, then retire (or, in my case, blog).

Another Day in the Field; Meetings and Midwives

Whew, having recreated the deleted day, I can move on.

Breakfast at the Inn. Susie said she’d awakened thinking how lucky we were to be in a country at peace. However real the issues might be, people were not getting up every day afraid that they’d be shot, as was true in many places.

We drove to meet with municipal officials in the Ahafo Anno South Municipal Assembly to explore possibilities for working together. They were extremely friendly and open to the idea. The most significant thing to come out of the meeting was that they gave us a copy of the 200-plus page report assessing their work in the past and containing plans and recommendations going forward. The Kipharts had not had a meeting like this with government officials in the past and the discussion was again ably managed by Sola.

Another car problem, this one not serious. Joseph drove our van too close to an oncoming vehicle, and our side view mirror was sheared off. After trying unsuccessfully to repair it, Joseph put the mirror into the van, to be affixed again at a later date.

We next drove to Abasua in the south of the Ashanti region. The chief there is one of the Kipharts’ favorites, as he seems to exercise real leadership and move things forward. For example, unlike other villages, he has all of his acreage being farmed. We sat with the chief and elders in the shaded courtyard of his house, then walked by the river on which the village sits and around the village grounds. We passed a very modest and rather charming Catholic church. Religion is almost everywhere you look in Ghana.


As we drive around, we are constantly reminded of the enormous difference between the Olopades appreciation of the situation and ours, not because they tell us that directly, but because we listen to their observations. Having grown up in rural villages in Nigeria, they understand what is going on and why in ways that we simply cannot. They have lived it. So, it is invaluable to have them along as guides and interpreters. Though the areas we travel in appear to us to be extremely poor, Sola looks out the window and says, “I see money everywhere.” He is looking at the expanse of land, the many crops, some cement buildings and electricity in most places. To him, these signify wealth.

We moved on to Bonkwaso, another village the Kipharts had supported over the years. The chief had been at the morning meeting and greeted me warmly.


Last year he’d given me a very nice walking stick and announced that we were brother nanas (chiefs). As we were gathering for a ceremony, and had done the ritual handshaking, we saw Sandra, an eight year old girl who we’d seen two years ago, shortly after she broke her arm.


The Kipharts had provided money for her to be taken to a hospital and treated, but instead, she was treated with local remedies and infections had developed and festered. Last year the Kipharts had again tried to arrange for treatment, but she looked to be in pretty bad shape, the poor little girl having undergone two years of mistreatments and pain. My-brother-the-chief had a number of requests for items that he wanted help with, but Dick told him that he was not getting another penny until Sandra was cared for. Dr. Annie says that if Sandra is brought to her in Kumasi, she will see that she is treated. I think the chief got the message, but we’ll see next year whether this terribly sad story is remedied. Just as we were leaving a rather young man who had returned to work too quickly after a hernia repair collapsed and had to be rushed into a truck to be taken to the hospital.

We drove on to see Vivian the midwife at her clinic. Two years ago the clinic had been run by a saintly midwife named Anna who had delivered more than 2000 babies, and never lost a mother. We and the Kipharts were shocked when we got word six months later that Anna had died. When we visited last year, we were very pleased to see that Vivian (who the Kipharts had actually met several years earlier) had taken over. Carol and I had made a contribution to the clinic which Vivian was quite grateful for. A special treat that Anna’s two daughters were at the clinic, so we got to meet them. One looks exactly like Anna, and was the one who called Vivian when Anna died to ask if she could come to take over.

I just realized that I haven’t said anything about the beautiful children. We haven’t seen as many of them as in past years, because school is not in session, but we still have seen a bundle. Here are just a few.




We had dinner back at the Inn, joined by Dr. Annie and Dr. Addae, to whom we bade farewell after dinner. We then spent another half hour or more debriefing the day and talking about plans for the future, including ways to provide the over-worked Dr. Annie more administrative help.

In the Field

Well, Tuesday was a fabulous day, and I wrote it up in great detail while it was still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, though, you’re not going to learn all that much about it. Bloggers nightmare: I managed somehow irretrievably to lose it. So, I’m just going to be able to give you overall impressions, plus whatever specifics I can recall (or make up; after all, how will you know?).

Breakfast at the hotel, with more interesting conversation that ranged from home schooling to the work that the Global Health Initiative, under Sola’s direction did in Haiti, assessing needs, sending people in needed areas of expertise and providing aid of about one million dollars in personnel and goods in an effort to avoid epidemics.

Rain meant that we were likely to have a very muddy day, so I went with Jonathan, Benjamin and Joseph to get boots, while the others drove ahead to Krapa. While I was sorry to miss the conversation en route, I did get the experience of walking around the market, with it’s array of goods ranging from refrigerators to fish. A sign of the times was twenty or more people selling cell phones out of stands created in the back of their cars. I was also able to get shaving and after shave, because when I got my bar back, I’d discovered that the only thing missing was the shaving cream I was sure I’d packed, which the Monrovians apparently had pilfered, at the same time spilling the small vial of after shave. Bet you didn’t know that about Monrovians, did you?

Arriving at Krapa, the place looked deserted as compared to previous visits, because school was out and so there were no swarms of smiling faces, pushing to have their photos taken. Susie felt from their look around that things were not going well. Mathis had been a place, where last year we found that the building the Kipharts had donated had not been used for a grade school, as intended. A brave young headmaster, Philip had spoken in front of the acting chief and his cousin cataloging problems there. Later, he courageously went to the head chief, who intervened, supposedly setting things straight. At a meeting later in the day, we’d have an opportunity to find out how things were.

I was driven a short distance to see the second “Carol and Arnie” well, which we’d contributed after our last visit.


Later in the day, we’d drive by the Valerie and Michael Lewis well that our friends the Lewises contributed. Valerie was with us on our trip last year.

Drove on to Nkyerepoagso, where we saw the laborious process of making palm oil by hand, the young mother of four sweating as the pulp (later used as fuel) was ground to produce the oil.


As we walked around the village, we saw an unventilated kitchen, where cooking was done. Sola, a pulmonologist, said that there were two million unnecessary deaths caused annually by this indoor pollution. Sola said that cooking indoors was a more dangerous health hazard than smoking. Another health issue was added to the Kipharts list.

At each place we visited, Funmi asked questions about whether health workers visited and whether the children had been inoculated (yes, and yes) and asked people to shoe their cell phones, which they had. So, in a real sense, we were doing field work to test what we’d been told.
Here’s Funmi in her stylish hat.


In a ceremony typical of the ones held wherever we went, the chief and elders welcomed us by forming a line and walking by us to shake our hands, each one of them saying “you are welcome” as they passes. Later, we would form a line to do the same, in reverse. We would be asked our “mission,” why we were there, which Peter would reply to. Speeches would follow. Gifts were given (the Kipharts had brought duffles of soccer balls, candy, uniforms, etc.), and sometimes we were given gifts, too. Ceremonies were cut short on this trip, because of the number of places we were visiting. In one village, the Kipharts gave the children toothbrushes made by accompany he’d invested in.


We moved on to the cocoa farms at Adowa, where much of the crop was in harvested because of manpower shortages. At a well in the village, young children were pumping water from the newly constructed well.


Next to the village of Prophet Emanual, the 96-year old prophet we visited each time. He is in remarkable shape, carrying himself erect, alert and energetic. He told us of how when anyone came to visit him, he told them of the great work Susie and Dick had done in building a well and a school. He blessed us in a very musical sounding blessing.


As the others walked around the village, I was able to spend more than half an hour asking the Prophet questions, Peter acting as my interpreter. We covered a range of things, the Prophet sometimes choosing to answer the question he wanted to, rather than the one I’d asked, in the manner of a US politician (though this was probably due in part to translation problems). The overall sense is one who believes genuinely that he hears the voice of god and is guided by visions, capable of bringing dead people back to life, curing the disabled and providing advice to the new president of Ghana. He has no regrets and, when asked about problems a prophet faces, he said that when he traveled he was sometimes concerned as to whether the vehicle he traveled in would make it. When he died, he said he would reveal which of his sons would succeed him as prophet. He declined my request that he tell me that now.

Next we went to Manhya, where the Kipharts had built there first well. There had been problems on and off there, but a warm relationship with the chief and elders prevailed.

We then drove to the home of the 80-plus year old head chief in the Krapa area, who has been enormously supportive. His nephew, the acting chief, seemed to be a good deal friendlier than last time, and the impressive young headmaster who joined us reported that everything was now good in the school, though he was working on the challenge of improving their students’ test scores.

Because of the lateness of the hour, we went, feeling quit grundgy, directly to the Golden Tulip hotel, where a dinner for 25 (which became 35) had been arranged. Most of the others arrived much later, so we could have gone to the Inn to freshen up. Eventually representatives from schools, health providers and government arrived, and, after dinner, Sola expertly led a discussion among participants about how everyone could work together. While we’d had these dinners on prior trips, no worthwhile exchanges had taken place. We were all struck by the very impressive head of the school district, Gertrude, who raised the possibility odd accelerating change greatly, through computers. New will definitely stay in touch with her.

When we returned to the Inn, we spent half an hour debriefing the day, before retiring, exhausted.

Healthy Start

After the rough arrival, our first real working day was a decided step in the right direction. Slept well, and courtesy of a loan from Dick, was able to put on fresh clothes for the day.

After a good breakfast at the Inn, we set out for Dr. Annie’s clinic in Kumasi, heavy city traffic making the short drive take at least half an hour. Ida joined us (“us” generally means the Kipharts, the Olopades and Peter). We learned, somewhat surprisingly, that all seven of our bags had been located in Accra and that Jonathan had picked them up and was headed our way. Apparently, our bags had decided that they would get a kick out of flying to Morovia and back yesterday. I’m hoping that they had a great time there.

Every aspect of Dr. Annie’s clinic is a huge beehive of color and activity. From the maternity ward, where six mothers who have just given birth and their less than twelve hour old babies lay stretched out on cots, to clinics for well babies some of whom were brought in by grandmothers or sisters of deceased mothers, to a laboratory, to the room where powdered compounds of baby food are put in transparent sacks to places where babies are weighed and inoculated. A few photos may give you some sense of the place, first one is of Dr. Annie:




Having been here three times, it’s fascinating to see the changes/improvements in the clinic financed by the Kipharts, by a foundation in Spain who the Kipharts introduced Dr. Annie to, the Ghanaian government and the Lakonishoks (other Chicago friends of the Kipharts; Margot went with us to Ghana two years ago). The entire place is bustling and, as Funmi commented, the children all looked clean and well-dressed and the mothers (or mother substitutes) engaged and attentive. Though clearly it could benefit from some further administration, Dr. Annie has done a remarkable job.

We spent a few hours at the clinic, shown around by Dr. Annie, who explained what was going on in each area. After this, Ida left and the rest of us went out for lunch at a restaurant in Kumasi.

Having Sola and Funmi along is fabulous. They are fun companions, for one thing. But way beyond that, they are extremely knowledgable, about what we are seeing in specific places we meet, about how to accomplish change in a global health environment and about the culture of West Africa. Their observations are astute, their questions direct and their sense of humor lively. Their contributions are central to making this trip work.

It’s tough to report on (or even remember) the many and diverse things we talk about en route. To give some idea, though, here are some topics I recall from today: growing up in Nigeria, their very talented children–Feyi, Dayo, Tobi, all in their twenties and in the US–the support families give to mothers in their homes in West Africa for forty days after they give birth, end of life issues, the importance of paraprofessionals in the medical (and other) professions and African philosophy–everything will be okay in the end, so if it’s not okay, it isn’t the end; in Africa, we control time, in the West, time controls us. I’m sure I’m forgetting many topics, and merely listing them can’t possibly give a true sense of the richness those conversations add to the trip.

The other two stops, after lunch, were much less colorful, but quite important to the purposes of the trip, since they gave us a far better sense of how the levels of medical care work in Ghana, the Ghana health insurance system and how the Kipharts might partner with existing providers. All of this emerged from skillful questions asked by the Olopades.

At the first place, the Juaben Government Hospital, we met and were shown around by Dr, Prosper Gbekor, the medical superintendent. He runs a very well organized and equipped hospital, which has laboratory facilities that permit firsthand research on malaria and other matters. We also met Esther, a young Community Health Worker, the type of person who may be very important in the work the Kipharts would like to do.

The second place, the Kwaso Health Center is a small operation that has no doctors on staff. It provides direct medical services to people, 95% of whom are covered by government health insurance. When medical matters are complex, patients are referred to other facilities. We talked about how the incredibly cheap ($15/year) fees are used to support the services. Our general sense was that the very small rural villages Dick and Susie are most interested in are not currently being served by the system, but could be brought into the existing structures. We’ll be able to test this hypothesis more tomorrow.

The Kipharts recently purchased two motor cycles to allow those who work with them to reach some of the remote villages. One of the well diggers drove one of the cycles over, and I’m sure one of the memorable photos from the trip will prove to be Susie aboard the cycle.

We drove back to the Inn and, after a tearful reuniting with our luggage, we were joined for dinner by Dr. Addae, a Ghanaian-born, German trained doctor who has been interested in and involved with rural health for many years and was actively involved in helping to conceive the national health system in 2001. The Kipharts have been involved with Dr. Addae on and off over the years, and we met him on both of Carol and my prior trips. While he is bright and interesting, the prior dealings have not always worked out so well and so it’s not likely he will be involved in the Kipharts new projects.

We retired early and I worked on the blog. Looking forward to a totally different experience tomorrow, when we visit some small villages.”

Bad Travel Karma, Traveling Light and Late

Well, we’re on the plane, and we’ve already had an adventure.

Met Dick, Susie, Funmi and Sola (if you don’t know them, look back at the first post) at O’Hare and we flew to JFK, spending time together in the Delta Skyclub there. Sola and Funmi showed us photos of the wonderful trip they had with their three children, climbing 19,000’+ Mt. Kilimanjaro a few weeks ago. What an unforgettable family adventure. My favorite photo was Sola celebrating his birthday on Kili with a cupcake and a candle.

Down to the gate for check-in, only to discover that the Kipharts’ 5-year visas had expired in May. The visa form is very poorly designed, highlighting the date that the passports expired, rather than the visa expiration date. In fact, they’re so poorly designed that the people at O’Hare had looked at and approved the Kipharts’ visas.

Enter Funmi, who immediately befriended the ticket agent, who was from Senegal, and enlisted his help to solve the problem, and told Dick and Susie not to worry about it. While Dick was calling Joe for help in Ghana, the gate agent made several calls, got approval for them to board and told them that a Delta agent would meet them in Accra and guide them through.

This was a great lesson in handling a difficult situation. Instead of getting all exercised, arguing with the gate agent, or yelling at or abusing him, Funmi made a friend and got him to help solve “our (including the agent’s) problem”. The question was never whether, but how, it would be solved. We five boarded and clinked champagne glasses to celebrate Funmi’s success in our seats together in business class.

Here are some random facts about Ghana that I lifted from Wikipedia, augmented by recent NYT articles. Accra’s population is almost 4 million; Kumasi, where we’ll be staying, over 2 1/2 million, in a country of some 24 million, located just North of the equator. A stable constitutional democracy which gained it’s independence from Britain in 1957. Its first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, dreamt of a united Africa, but was overthrown in 1966 by a CIA-approved coup. A series of other coups ensued and eventually Jerry J.J. Rawlings took over in 1981. After two unsuccessful runs at the presidency, John Mills was narrowly elected in 2009, but died several weeks ago. They will be holding an election this December.

The Portuguese were the first European colonial power in the 15th century, but others followed. The British, attracted by gold, called it the Gold Coast and the French, enchanted by the trinkets worn by coastal people called the area to the West the Ivory Coast.

In addition to gold, Ghana exports cocoa, timber, electricity, diamonds, bauxite and manganese. The country remains heavily agricultural, and about 25% of the population lives on less than $1.25/day. Recent discoveries of oil portend economic growth.

English is the official language, but more than 100 ethnic groups speak many other languages.

Back to the plane. All five of us are quite excited about this trip. In a very real sense we’ve been preparing for it for months in meetings we’ve had and in innumerable emails that we’ve exchanged over that period. Now, it’s time to stop the emails and see whether some of the plans we’ve discussed can be put into place in real life. In addition to the Kipharts’ commitment and energy and the expertise of the Olopades and others, this will require buy-in from the team that Dick and Susie have assembled in Ghana (which I think we already have) and the active cooperation and participation of governmental officials, local chiefs and the people in the villages. Any implementation is bound to take some years, and will almost certainly encounter bumps that nobody can now anticipate. But the potential payoff for the Ghanaian people involved is great and the process will be both exciting and interesting. It’s a privilege to be a fly (hopefully not malaria-bearing) on the wall for all of this.

Little sleep on the ten hour plane ride. Read quite a bit of the next assignment for Carol and my book club, Bill Bryson’s, A Walk in the Woods about his hiking on the Appalachian Trail, much of which is hilarious and filled with some interesting facts, history and scientific information. Favorite factoid so far: the average American walks 1.4 miles a week, or about 350 yards a day. The book is bogging down somewhat half way through, though.

No problem with visas in Accra. Kipharts are able to purchase them. We wait a long time for our luggage, very long. In the end, one of the eight bags we checked arrived, the others preferring to stay in New York for a few more days, as the next flight is not until Tuesday. So, unintentionally, we’ll be traveling very light. Fortunately, as the Olopades are doctors, Dick will be able to get some medication that was packed. And for the rest, we’ll muddle through.

All of this visa and luggage stuff consumes almost three hours at the Accra airport. We set out for the long drive to Kumasi armed with the ten used country CDs I brought. I’m riding with Joseph, Jonathan and Benjamin, the accountant. The rest are in another SUV.

The good news was that we avoided what used to be a very bone-jolting 4 1/2-5 hour ride to Kumasi. The bad news was that the new, smoother route was 6 1/2 hours. Benjamin kept up a steady conversation that was somewhat hard to understand at times, but pleasant. He was aware of the well that Carol and I had donated and expressed great gratitude. He was also interested in hearing about the grandchildren and some of the travel we’d done.

After a few hours, we stopped for a bathroom break, and Sola switched to my car. Great to hear about his family, the land, both in a village and in the city that he’d inherited from his father. His grandfather had been a chief. Sola and Funmi at one time had considered buying land in Senegal along the coast, but the French language barrier was a deal breaker. His siblings all seem well-educated and successful, as are Funmi’s. One of his sisters lives in Ireland.

Sola was amazed at the wide open expanses of land we drove through, comparing them to far more densely-populated Nigeria. He commented on the gentle, kind nature of Ghanaians, as compared to the brusk Nigerians.

After about an hour, the SUV Sola and I were in over-heated an we were forced to pull over. After futzing around for 20 minutes or so, we determined that the Kipharts, Olopades and I would continue on in the good SUV with Freedom driving. Peter, Joseph and Benjamin stayed to deal with the other vehicle.


Another three hours remained to Kumasi, two of them now in the dark. About 8:45, some nine hours after we landed in Accra and twenty-seven hours after setting out for O’Hare, we arrived at The Four Villages Inn, our home for the next four or five nights.

Carol and I have stayed there twice, and it’s very comfortable and homey. We were greeted by Chris, the Canadian proprietor. His wife, Charity, who is Ghanaian, doubles as a wonderful cook. Tonight the gumbo was particularly fabulous, and I had two bowls, complemented by two large, cold Star Beers, the local brew. Also greeting us at the Inn were Ida, her son Joe Jr, and later, her son, Daniel, who we had met in Chicago. Dr Annie, lively as always, was there as well. Everyone asked about and said they missed Carol.

The dinner conversation was delightful, and involved different combinations of people talking to one another at different times. I think my favorite piece of it was Dr. Annie and Funmi talking about how on Funmi’s earlier trip this year, they’d been having breakfast at the very table we were at and encountered a Chinese guest who obviously was in very bad shape. They diagnosed the case as malaria, prescribed treatment, Funmi gave up her room for him and by the next day, he was a very lucky fellow, well on his way to recovery.

Peter and the others arrived about an hour later to join us. After visiting with them for a while, we all retired, quite exhausted and likely to sleep very well indeed.

I promise that tomorrow will be a more interesting look at Ghana, rather than a catalogue of our travails.

Cast of Characters

August 23, 2012

Not sure whether blogging ethicists would condone this pre-trip post, but I have my reasons for doing it, and I should at least get a few points for being up front.

I’m taking off for Ghana in two days, my third trip in as many years. Some of you may have followed one or both of the prior trips. If you haven’t, and would like some further background, you can find links to the blogs for the past two years in the margin of this blog. Even without that background, though, this blog should stand on its own, like the third novel in a series.

And, though this is no novel–the characters are real and unaltered–the story that unfolds has something of the feel of a novel or, put differently, the reality of the Ghana life experience gives to the lives we lead in the West a sense of the fictional. If that does not make sense now, perhaps it will by the end of this trip. Or, perhaps not.

I want to introduce some of the cast of characters now, so that you can begin to get to know them. From time to time, you may want to refer back to this post to refresh your recollection of the people I refer to in the blog.

This trip will differ in a couple of important respects from the two prior trips.

First, the trip has a different and more focused purpose. To date, the Kipharts’ (of which, more soon) work in Ghana has evolved from the digging of wells in selected rural communities to the additions of wings to schools and aid to medical clinics and last year, to the creation of a commercial pineapple-growing venture. The growth of their work has been somewhat topsy-like, expanding as additional needs and opportunities have been identified. In the six months prior to this trip, though, the Kipharts’ thinking has shifted to a more focused, organized and holistic attempt to create sustainable communities that combine economic growth with clean water, health and education in largely-forgotten, small, rural areas in Ghana. This trip will be an attempt to shape and start one or more “circles of sustainability” (as Susie Kiphart refers to them) in these rural areas.

Second, the cast of characters has changed somewhat. One important member of the two prior trips, my wife Carol, will not be along, because the trip is too close to the prospective birth of our fifth grandchild in Atlanta (who is due October 4) for her comfort. Of course we all, especially me, will miss Carol’s presence, though we know that she will be with us in spirit.

Joining the trip, will be Funmi and Sola Olopade, two Nigerian doctors who run the Global Health Initiative at the University of Chicago. The Olopades have become good friends of the Kipharts and have been influential in shaping their new thinking. Carol and I have been privileged to get to know the Olopades over three or four meetings with the Kipharts. (The Olopades just returned from a family trip to Tanzania, where they climbed Kilimanjaro.). Funmi has been to Ghana with another friend of the Kipharts, Marta Segu, whose foundation in Spain has provided financial support to the Kumasi Clinic, run by Dr. Annie. Sola (pronounced “Shola”) is making his first trip to Ghana with us. Marta will not be with us, though she’s been an active contributor to the robust email communication that has preceded the trip. (As part of their more focused thinking, the Kipharts are approaching some others to help fund and leverage their work. In addition to Grifols, the Spanish Foundation, they have applied to the Ronald McDonald Foundation in the U.S. for support.)

Much of the cast of characters in Ghana, is unchanged. The Kipharts, Dick and Susie, have been our close friends for some forty years. Dick is a very successful investment banker and investor and Susie is a graduate of the Erikson Institute for early childhood development in Chicago. They have been traveling to Ghana for nine years, and have established close, caring, respectful relationships with tribal chiefs over that period, through the shepherding of the point person for all of their Ghana operations, Peter Eduful, who they met when Peter was studying at the University of Chicago. Peter is a former Ghanaian government official in the department of education who now works full time with the Kipharts , attending to all of the details and logistics of the work they do in Ghana and guiding them expertly through potential cultural, governmental and economic minefields.

Dr Annie, who is from Madagascar and received her medical training in the Ukraine, is the irrepressible leader of the Kumasi Clinic that provides medical treatment to mothers and babies in and around Kumasi. If her energy could be harnessed and converted to electricity, it could power the entire country.

Working with Peter is the construction head, Alex, whose smile radiates warmth and love to all who see it. Peter’s nephews, Freedom and Jonathan, oversee maintenance of the wells, provide liaisons to the villages and drive the trucks we ride in when we visit Ghana. They help wherever needed and are constantly upbeat and smiling.

Joe Kwarteng, dean of the school of agriculture at Cape Coast University, is Dick’s partner in the pineapple business. Joe’s wife, Ida, runs an NGO with Joe that puts school farms in rural schools and works closely with a school for the deaf, some of whose graduates are employed in the pineapple business. Joe is Ghanaian; Ida grew up half in Lebanon and half in the US. So, of course, Joe and Ida met as students at The Ohio State University.

There are other “players” as well, but I’ll wait to introduce them as we go along, so as not to overwhelm you at the outset.

Look forward to sharing what I’m certain will be an unforgettable trip with you.

As I want to test adding a photo and, of course, have none from a trip that has not yet begun, I’ll shamelessly share two photos of grandchildren, the first (from left to right) of Phoebe, Riley and Zoe and the second of Jasper, with his grandpa, brandishing the rewards they’ve received for both being good boys for their joint haircut.



Reflections on the trip, from Abu Dhabi, en route home, February 6

So, let’s start with infrastructure. Peirce & Leslie is fabulous–exceedingly professional, attentive to every detail and willing, amiably, to turn on a dime to accomplish whatever we want to do. Like all good infrastructure, it’s virtually invisible, but makes an enormous difference in the travel experience. You may (or may not) pay a bit more, but, if you do, it’s worth every rupee.

We were blessed with excellent guides throughout. As any traveler knows, the quality of a guide has a dramatic impact on your experience. We were particularly fortunate to have Jay with us for ten days.

Spending most of the trip with Steve and Karen was a treat. They are easy, curious, smart and fun. Traveling with others is tricky, at best. Great friends do not necessarily make great travel companions. We count Steve and Karen in both categories, and only hope that they count us that way, as well.

The trip itself was terrific. Carol and I play a game at the end of each trip, separately listing our favorite moments of the trip. As usual, there was a strong correlation between our choices. With slight differences in order between us, the top ten were virtually identical. Carol did rank her blessing from a temple elephant putting his trunk on her head highly, and I certainly can’t disagree with that assessment. I only wish I’d been so blessed.

Mine were the caves (especially Ajanta), the Dabbawallas ( lunch deliverers in Mumbai), lunch with Sabita and family in Chennai, the dance recital in Chennai, putting the god to sleep ceremony at Minakshi temple, visiting Deborah the ceramicist in Pondicherry, dinner with Anil and his wife and friends in Mumbai, elephant bathing and procession in Cochin, the Dhobi Ghat (open air laundry) in Mumbai and the houseboat ride with Ashok in the backwaters of Kerala. The list was made en route to Mumbai, or I probably would have included the visit to the slums on that list. Other things that both Carol and I loved were the ox cart ride in Chettinad, the terra cotta horses, the movie and the wedding we crashed.

Striking, but not surprising about the list is that, with the exception of the caves, none of the top items is a temple, palace, fort or museum (to be fair, Carol ranked the bronze dancing Shivas we saw in a museum highly). Not that those all weren’t interesting and worthwhile, but it’s the personal and real life experiences that make a trip. I should add to the last sentence “for us.”

One of my favorite moments in the trip was when our guide, Jay, talked about taking Indian tourists to Europe and how what mattered most for them was singing and watching movies on a bus that was traveling on a highway at high speed, bringing home small souvenir/gifts to subtly show their status as travelers and, incidentally, seeing a place or two. He described this without being judgmental. What interested these people was having an experience different from their everyday lives and, in that sense, they were attracted by the same thing we are. I can also readily imagine sophisticated American travelers who are blown away by the architecture, history and museums. But not us. (Though I have to admit that we were blown away by the architecture, history and museums in Egypt. On that trip, though, we lacked the kind of personal connections and touches that we had on this trip.)

I’m always struck on a trip like this by what a privileged life we live. And, also, by what a sheltered and provincial one. Ours is a young and isolated country. What do we know of rulers from a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago? And how can we understand what it means to be invaded and ruled by different empires over the centuries? Are the countries we’ve invaded (or, excuse me, liberated or supported) in the last fifty years feeling what prior generations in India felt during the periods we heard about on this trip? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of that kind of history, at least if you didn’t have to live through it? Or, have we achieved some of the “benefits” of invasion and colonization (how’s that for a concept?) through immigration and, if so, what do our current immigration policies portend for the future?

At times, I’ve poked a bit of fun at the religious stories or names we heard about. That’s just my approach to life; I don’t mean to belittle the beliefs of others. Religions and their appeal have real interest for me. To be honest, I love the Hindu stories and gods, and their many characteristics, incarnations and consorts, though I confuse them constantly. What right-thinking, sane person would not love to worship an elephant god who brings good luck? And how can one not respect a religion whose adherents not only wash themselves before entering the temple to worship their gods, but also scrub down the elephants who carry those gods?

Finally, I have to mention the world’s greatest travel companion, my wife. Sharing these trips with her increases the joy of traveling exponentially.

And, speaking of companions, thanks for following, and for your many encouraging comments. It’s been fun to have you along. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the trip, perhaps even learned something along the way, and that you’ll decide to join us again, when we go to Ghana in September. For you, no visa or inoculations required.

Slumming it in Mumbai, February 5

We’d booked dinner at the seafood restaurant at the hotel last night. Lovely rooftop setting overlooking the water, but when we determined that there were only full, 3-course dinners, we elected to move into History, where we’d eaten the night before. Rejected our first table in favor of one away from the live music, which was more pleasant/less dissonant than last night’s offering. Excellent, spicy duck dish.

Room service decided that we should have eggs Benedict for breakfast, rather than what we’d ordered the night before. After checking out, we are driven the hour and a quarter to the Cochin airport, escorted by a Peirce & Leslie agent, then handed off to another P&L agent at the airport who escorts us in, checks our bags, gets our boarding passes and points us in the direction of the security checkpoint. This is the type of personal service we have gotten throughout and, while one could most-likely make do with less, it’s undeniably nice, and greatly reduces the anxiety associated with air travel.

On the other end, we’re met by our P&L representative, Suresh, and the driver we’d had earlier in Mumbai, Mohammed (who, embarrassingly, we do not recognize). The message that we wanted a tour of the slums had not made its way to Suresh (who, we later found out, had been up all night working last night). He made a call and said, no problem, we will visit the slums, but we should not get out of the car, because it was Mohammed’s birthday (not our driver) and there were big crowds and celebrations. The celebrations would start late in the day, but we encountered some early parades, flags and loud music. Mohammed-the-driver will celebrate, too, and though he gets a call from his 8-year old son, who wants to know when he’ll be home to take him to the festivities, we never have a sense that Mohammed is rushing or anxious to drop us off.


Instead of going to the slums near the airport, Suresh said he’d take us to the larger slum, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. En route, Suresh explained that 40% of the people in Mumbai (or 8 million people) lived in slums. People came from villages to the city, expecting to realize their dreams, but soon discovered the reality. Some 60-65% of those living in slums were Muslims, but the percentage was about 75% in the slum we were going to.

When we got to the slums, we did get out of the car and walked around for almost an hour, getting a surprising education along the way. There is industry in the slums, people making pottery, leather goods, candies. These are sold in shops just outside the slums for a fraction of the price they bring in other stores. People in the slums were very friendly, many wanting their pictures taken or to say hello and shake hands. In general, people looked clean and healthy, and happy. (I admit that I have no basis for saying the latter, but it was definitely my impression from looking at people and from the brief interactions that we had.) For people living there, Suresh says, the area is quite safe. So, while I’m not ready to move in quite yet, I emerged with quite a different impression than the one I had going in. We owe our good friend. Leslie Paul, a debt of gratitude for the education we got, because it was her persistence that convinced us that we needed to make the visit.





Across the street is an open lot, where boys are playing cricket. Looming over the lot is a large apartment block built by the government.


Suresh says that people will live there a short time, sell them at a profit and move back to the slums; not what the government had in mind. We walk past leather shops. Carol looks at belts, but does not buy. I go into the next store and wind up buying a pair of leather shoes, for $30. Suresh is a little delayed getting back to the bus because he, too, has bought a pair. When Carol and I admire them, he says I can get a pair like it, and walks me back to the store. Unfortunately, though, they had only one in that size, which he had bought. Despite my protestations, he insists that I take the pair he’s bought, since he can easily go back any time. So, I wind up with two pairs of leather shoes for sixty bucks. Such a deal.

We go from the slums to our decidedly upscale hotel, the Leela Kempinski, very near the international terminal of the airport that we need to get to at three in the morning. At the hotel, I manage to get my iPad, which just stopped working at the Cochin airport, to start again, with the help of the hotel IT guy. Carol and I go down for a good dinner at the hotel, and plan to retire very early in order to get up for the 2:15 AM room service breakfast that we just ordered.

I’ll try to wind up this blog with some reflections From the plane tomorrow.

Praying and washing elephants in Cochin

We were told that we could not visit the Jewish Synagogue today, because it was Shabbat. On further inquiry yesterday, though, Jay found that there was a service that we could attend. After breakfast we drove, then walked, to the synagogue, where we were told services would start at 8:45. We walked past many interesting shops, some of which were been swept out and prepared for opening. We waited outside the synagogue, while the guard opened the door, but made it clear that we were not welcome to enter until a congregant arrived. The once-thriving Jewish community that numbered over 100,000 has dwindled to less than a minyan, almost all of them elderly.

More than an hour late, we were surprised to see a tall, thin man, dressed in black, with a hat and a long beard stride down the street, with a few others. Turns out that he is a member of Chabad from Israel who, with his wife, have lived in Cochin for more than two years, seeking to keep the Jewish community alive. We walked into the synagogue, the women sitting in an area in back, separate from the main synagogue. Eleven hundred handmade tiles decorate the floor, lamps and chandeliers from Europe hang from the ceiling, and wooden benches line the sides of the room. A wooden and brass circular structure is in the center and serves as the bimah.

We chat briefly with the rabbi, who asks our Hebrew names, which I know, but Steve does not. He asks how long we can stay and seems disappointed, but not surprised or dismissive, when we tell him only a short time. There are eleven men in the service, which I think is an unusual crowd for the synagogue. Several are young Israelis and one an older gentlemen, born in Rumania, but now living in Baltimore, who travels the world in his spice trade business. Certainly there could be no more appropriate place to pray than Cochin for one in that trade. He is friendly and chatty. He and his wife moved last night to a small hotel near the synagogue so that he could walk to services this morning.

The services are “led” first by one young man and then by the rabbi. “Led” consists of davening, sometimes inaudibly and sometimes chanting in the structure in the center. I can pick up and join in on only a few prayers. There is something sad and lovely about praying in this more than four century-old synagogue, knowing that Jews around the world are all participating in the same type of worship.

Of course, Jews were not the only foreigners to influence this area. Kerala, and especially Cochin, was one of the main ports on the spice route. The history of Kerala reflects the significant influences these spice traders left behind. Christianity first came to India through Kerala, and the Islamic influence in the state can be seen when traveling north. Even after they left, the cultural influence is still seen in the architecture of Cochin.

We stay at the synagogue for less than an hour, make a contribution on the way out and then wander back to our bus past interesting stores that we do not have any real time to explore.

We walk with Jay and the Sugarmans along the area that Carol and I walked yesterday morning, and Jay explains what is going on. We stop to watch some very quick auctions of freshly caught fish that will be taken to hotels and shops, and sold today.



We continue walking through the narrow roads of the area that is today referred to as the Heritage Zone, seeing various architectural styles reflecting the many cultures that lived here. Dutch houses stand next to spacious porticoed British plantation style homes. Further down, we go through the Church of St Francis, built by the Portuguese.

We return to the hotel and have lunch with the Sugarmans, who are about to check out of the hotel, as they are moving to a new city in Kerala tonight.

We take the bus to the Mattancherri Palace, which was commissioned by the Portuguese for the Raja of Kochi in exchange for trading rights, and remodeled extensively by the Dutch. The palace is two stories high and is built in the traditional Kerala style known as “nalukattu” (four buildings around a central courtyard). Made of wood and richly carved, the palace exhibits memorabilia from the Raja of Kochi’s collection, but it is best known for its outstanding murals painted on the walls. Fast fading, you can still see some of these excellent 16th century paintings illustrating episodes from the great Indian epic – The Ramayana. This is an interesting place, but we don’t really have enough time to digest it.

Kochi’s ancient Shiva Temple is popularly known as Ernakulathappan (catchy, huh?). The annual festival in the deity’s honor, Ernakulathappan Uthsavom, is today and includes a procession with caparisoned elephants, special pujas, classical dances, concerts and firework displays. Because of our timing, we are able only to catch the bathing and decorating of the elephants, but that is quite fun to see, and, at least we had a taste of the festival (albeit a small taste) last night. Too bad that we can’t see the full-blown festival, but you can’t catch everything.



We say goodbye to Karen and Steven. In a touching show I’d affection, Karen gives Carol and me six Sodukos (or however you spell the damn things) to frustrate us on our trip home. It’s been as marvelous to be with the Sugarmans as we’d anticipated, and we had very high expectations.

We ride back to the hotel and say goodbye to Jay, who has been a wonderful guide. He is knowledgable on an incredible range of topics, and could not have been more flexible in accommodating all of our whims and changes of plans. Most recently, he facilitated, with Shonali and her amazing group at Peirce & Leslie, getting an earlier flight to Mumbai tomorrow, arranging for us to see some of the slums there and changing the arrival time for us at the hotel in Mumbai.

Carol is at an hour-long cooking class that she had signed up for yesterday, but missed because of our late return to the hotel. We missed an hour-long cruise we’d booked at the hotel for 5:30, but we knew that was extremely iffy.

Backwaters and elephants, Kerala, February 3

Breakfast outside on the water is very pleasant (and slow). Carol and I walk into town by the sea to watch fisherman raise and lower the large, counter-weighted Chinese fishing nets, hung on spider-like wooden arms, to pull in the the fish and sell them in stalls. A sign on a restaurant says, “You buy it, we cook it.”


Driving to Alleppy, we pass some elephants, decorated for participation in one of the temple festivals going on. We are to visit one of the festivals tomorrow.


After more than an hour, we arrive at Alleppy, where we board our houseboat to begin our tour of the famous Kerala backwaters, a leisurely journey through the Kuttanadu area of the backwaters. This is one of the few areas where farming is done below sea level, fields having been reclaimed from what once was a lake. We travel through the labyrinthine maze of canals and waters ways passing rice paddy fields, banana and coconut plantations, small villages and boats commuting between villages and ferrying children to school and farmers to the markets. We see coracles, small, round, bamboo boats from which a small family fishes and later uses the boat as shelter to sleep on the shore.



Our houseboat has two bedrooms and baths, a comfortable, shaded deck area and a kitchen from which an excellent lunch is prepared for us. We are joined by Ashok Koshy, a charming fellow who has lived in England, travelled in the US and has a home in the backwaters. Ashok is a professional photographer and an avid flutist. As he and a colleague have collaborated on a book of photos and poems, he, Carol and I have a lot in common to talk about. Our four and a half hours on the boat are delightful and a very relaxing change of pace.

In the bus, Jay regales us with very amusing stories about large groups of Indians who he takes to Europe, who want nothing more than to sing and watch movies as their tour bus travels at high speeds on uncrowded highways. Anything they may see outside is incidental to the trip, the main thrust of which takes place on the bus. They will travel only in a group and are uneasy about venturing anywhere without his say-so. This is an interesting and astounding difference from the travel we do.

While Jay extolls the virtues of Kerala, he is also frank to admit the problems. One of the primary issues is a high alcoholism rate, which creates many attendant problems, including some periodic mass family suicides to avoid the debt collectors they cannot pay. The government has now made all liquor sales come from government-owned stores, and we see lines of men outside these stores, waiting to buy liquor.

On our way back to the hotel, we pass a procession of musicians and three elephants making their way to a temple for a festival, guided by mahouts, the elephant trainers who live with them. The elephants stop at homes along the way for offerings to the god, and we are offered bananas by a smiling 10-year old girl at one of the houses.



After returning to the hotel, we have an excellent dinner at History restaurant, on the second floor of Brunton Boatyard.

On the go, from Madurai to Cochin, February 2

Today is a travel day. We spend the morning at the hotel, relaxing, as running back into town (half hour drive each way) to see more of the markets does not seem worth it. As there are no direct flights, to get to Cochin from Madurai, we need to fly first to Chennai, which is in the wrong direction. There we have over three hours in the airport, before connecting to Cochin. If we had another day or two, we would have driven the ten hours from Madurai to Cochin, crossing the mountains, seeing tea plantations and, perhaps, even stopping at a game preserve. That would have been nice.

I have not commented on the begging, which is a disturbing element of travel in India. It occurs primarily around temple areas in the South. As advised, we do not respond to beggars, but they are a reminder of the gaps between haves and have-nots, in India and around the world.

Though I’ve alluded to the traffic, I probably have not given an adequate sense of the chaos and harrowing nature of travel by road. There is a constant din of honking, so much so that I asked Jay whether it’s possible to buy a car that honks automatically every four seconds, to save the driver the effort. This honking affects one as a pedestrian, as well, causing you, at first, to jump each time you hear it, walking along the street, or crossing over. After a while, though, you become inured to and ignore it, and learn that the trick to crossing the street is to appear oblivious to the traffic bearing down on you.

Contrasting elements of every day life are the incredible color of Indian life and the garbage, strewn everywhere, and especially along the roads. The predominance of plastic refuse is a ready reminder of the vexatious nature of that substance. So far as one can tell, Indians are oblivious to the trash. Jay says it is a matter of education.

Read The Hindu newspaper at breakfast, which gives one a good sense of what’s going on. The virulent attacks by one political party against another demonstrates that we’re not alone in that regard, and a small article, buried in the middle of the paper, about Romnay’s decisive win over Gingrich in Florida is a reminder that the US is not the center of the universe to the rest of the world. An interesting side note is an article about the movie The Help, and a reflection on its implications for Indian domestic workers.

Spend part of our free time during travel discussing with Jay the myriad differences between North and South India. History: the North was invaded and controlled by Aryans. Language: North language is Hindi, having common ties to languages of Europe, while South is Dravidian. Food: a different, larger kind of rice in South, North has corn and wheat in meals. Infrastructure: much better in South. Education: better in South. Weather: South has weather that’s the sane, year-around, with either one or two predictable monsoon seasons; weather in North has extremes of heat and cold. Religion: South 85% Hindu, North more than 20% Muslim and was about 50% prior to partition and creation of Pakistan. Darker skinned people In South. South economically better off than North.

Travel is okay, but long, especially since I’m not feeling at the top of my game. Arriving in Kerala and driving an hour and a quarter to our hotel in Cochin, one notices immediate differences. Billboards are for much more upscale products and are virtually entirely in English. We pass huge Toyota and other car dealerships, and large shopping malls. Roads are much better with no traffic coming right at us and no honking. Of course, that’s not to say that we don’t pass three heavily-decorated elephants being used for a temple festival. Communist party flags line the road because of a big conference to be held in the area. Communists have been democratically elected from time to time.

We reach the Brunton Boatyard, a relatively new hotel (ten or so years), with a very gracious, old feel to it. We have large suites, looking out on the water; extremely comfortable. Service at the restaurant is slow, and, as I’m not feeling that great, I eat only about half of my roast beef (people in Kerala eat beef) sandwich, before going up to the room.

Fish-eyed women and meters of coffee, Madurai, February 1

We’re dropped by a van a few blocks from our main point of interest today. We walk past houses, swept clean each morning and decorated with rice powder designs that will be eaten by ants by the end of the day.


As we walk, Jay tells us the legend surrounding the origins of Madurai, which involves a story about a couple who has a young girl with three breasts. They are upset about the fact that she’s a girl, and about her deformity. Oh, hell, i can’t remember all the twists and turns, but she kills a demon, marries Shiva, gets back down to two breasts and turns out to be a beautiful fish-eyed goddess (apparently, women with fish eyes are real knock outs), one of the incarnation of Parvathi. As the story goes, Shiva then looks down and drops of nectar fall from his locks, resulting in the city being named Madurai or “The City of Nectar”. So, have you got it?

Ancient Madurai was a center of Tamil culture, famous for its writers and poets, and the history goes back to the 6th century BC when it traded with Greece and Rome. It’s one of the longest continually-occupied cities in the world. The Nayaka Kings laid out the old own in the pattern of a lotus with narrow streets surrounding the Minakshi Temple, which is a temple complex of thirteen buildings constructed over a period of several centuries. Minakshi is the “fish eyed goddess” who is also the consort of Shiva. Shiva has a temple dedicated to him in the complex. Since Minakshi is the presiding goddess, the daily ceremonies are first performed at her shrine and then at the shrine of Shiva. This is a living temple and each shrine has priests performing rituals in front of them, and it’s really the varied life around the temple that is interesting. I’ll try to convey some sense of it through a bunch of photos.

First, there are the impressive towers of the temple


We see a group of men moving a heavy sedan platform on which a statue of Parvathi will be carried around.


There are myriad shops surrounding the temple complex, some selling offerings for pilgrims to bring to the gods. Housed in the remains of a 16th century ruin nestled amongst the decorated pillars and carvings are a remarkable collection of stalls selling everything from silk scarves to pink plastic (Carol bargains for four barrettes for the girls, getting four for $2.40, and causing the rest of us to wait ten minutes to talk the seller down from the outrageous $3 price he’d proposed.)


A group of men and women are clearing cement from an area in the center that will eventually be filled with water, passing heavy containers of cement from one to the next.



People pray.



Priests sit at the shrines, or have tea together after prayers.



Children join their parents and adoring grandparents, some of them brought to be blessed by the gods.



A newly-wed bride is fitted with toe rings.


Shrines are decorated with flowers.


We explore the markets surrounding the temple, passing streets selling an extraordinary variety of items. But there is order in the chaos. The area is a like a huge open air department store, each street dedicated to one particular item – stationery, flowers and fruits, vessels, items used in worship etc. There is even one lane dedicated to bananas – South India boasts over 50 varieties. We are joined by locals, shopping in typically colorful dress.



The highlight of the walk is a stop at a tea shop, where we have delicious “meter” coffees, mixed by the proprietor by pouring them from a height of a meter. Starbucks is due to come to India soon, and we’re guessing that the coffee, which we paid fourteen cents a cup for, will probably go for about $3.50.


We drive a short distance and stop for an excellent lunch at a small hotel restaurant, the return to our hotel for rest, relaxation, blogging, etc., before the evening activities.

Picked up at 6:00, we head for a movie theater. Since we’ve heard so much about the movie-craziness of Tamilnadu, we decide to give it a try, and, as we’re our own bosses, there’s no problem in doing that. Jay has gone ahead to purchase tickets in the VIP area (cost $1.20), which is air conditioned. The movie is Slave Girl, made in 1968, starring MGR, former leader of Tamil, and co-starring the current leader as his leading lady.


The film (and it IS a film, complete with a projector that stops at random times, is a VERY corny, dated story of good versus evil, with lots of sword fights, rescues, flashbacks and singing. We make it until intermission, about an hour and a half.


We head for a hotel for a snack/dinner, which does the trick, and then head to the Minakshi temple for the nightly symbolic putting to bed of Shiva and “Fisheyes”. This involves a procession, with priests carrying an ark-like, small silver house with a black stone (Shiva linga) representing Shiva inside. There is music, fire, prayers, waving of fans, blowing of conch and sprinkling of water. The concept is not unlike the putting to sleep of Mother Ganges each night that we witnessed in Varanasi on our first trip to India, and it’s well worth seeing. We go barefoot, as we have in all living Hindu temples that we’ve entered.





Driving home at 10:30, Madurai is still very-much open for business (though not as bustling as it was on our way to the temple at 8:45), as Jay says it will remain well into the wee hours of the morning, unlike any other Indian city. We return to the hotel and forego a drink in favor of retiring.

Oxen and mansions, Chettinad/Madurai, January 31

Today is a slower-paced schedule, which is a welcome change. And we don’t have to go into any damn Hindu temples. I’m kidding, of course, as the temples have been great. But a day off from Lord Shiva feels welcome to this Jewish guy.

We have stayed at some terrific hotels, and this one, set in a magnificent old mansion, is elegant and distinctive, with rooms on two floors around an open atrium.


We travel around Chettinad by ox-drawn cart, a leisurely and great way to do it (except when you come face to face with oncoming motorized traffic). It’s a sign of the times that towards the end of our ride the old ox-cart driver receives a call on his cell phone.


The Chettinad region at one time represented the wealth of Tamil Nadu. The many villages were once the homes of fabulously wealthy merchant families known as the Chettiars. Today it is an area of mostly deserted magnificent mansions. Just one of the Chettiar houses used 300 tons of satinwood and Burma teak in its construction. One of the specialties of these houses is the woodcarving especially on the doors.

We stopped to visit one of the run-down, occupied mansions and saw the inside and some of its inhabitants.



With recent interest by tourists, some of the old mansions are being bought and refurbished, used either as hotels or homes. As they now stand, real estate parlance would call them “handy man specials.”

We forsook our oxen for the minibus, and drove to a place where beautiful tiles are being made out of cement. We saw the whole process, which involves putting a piece of glass into a metal frame, pouring paint on the glass, using forms to create a design, sprinkling on dry cement, pouring wet cement into the frame and smoothing it out, drying it for a day, submerging it in water for two days to strengthen the cement and, finally, allowing it all to dry for five days and removing the glass. We’ve seen demonstrations of many crafts and arts around the world, but this one was a first for two reasons: we actually understood it and nobody tried to sell us anything afterwards. The end product is quite wonderful.



After the demonstration, we walked around a nearby vegetable market.


From there, we drove to another hotel, housed in a large mansion, for an excellent traditional South Indian Tali lunch, composed of many different dishes spread on a banana leaf and eaten with your hands. The owner of the home chatted amiably with us. This hotel was also lovely, but not quite as nice as the one we stayed in.

We set out for Madurai, stopping at a town to walk through an antique market, where Karen and Steve bought a brass knocker for their front door. Along the road today we have seen large numbers of pilgrims who are walking to a temple some 200 kilometers away. The walk will take them five days, and they will make an offering when they arrive. Jay tells us that a very large pilgrimage in Kerala, an area we will visit later, attracted 20,000,000 people over a month and a half period, and raised over 180,000,000 rupees in contributions.


We drive on through Madurai, the second largest Tamil city at 1.4 million people, and on to The Gateway Hotel, situated on a mountain top, high above Madurai. We have a lovely view, with a large terrace that overlooks the city.

We relax in room, then walk up to the restaurant for a pretty good dinner with pretty lousy service.

Chola temples, bronzes and terra cotta horses, January 30

After breakfast, we’re shuttled from our hotel to our minibus for an 8:30 start. As usual, there’s a lot to see and talk about, goats being herded, flightless ducks eating the remnants of rice stalks, which they’ll help to fertilize with their droppings, Jay brings topics alive by using articles from today’s newspaper. Local boys have been injured in bull turning, grasping bulls by the horns and turning them, a rather dangerous sport. Supplementing his discussion yesterday of free color TVs for poor people, Jay points to a photo of a leader from a nearby state presenting a free mixer/blender to a poor person in fulfillment of a campaign promise. He also shows us an article about a chair in Indian studies having been created at the University of Chicago in the name of a Hindu Indian Swami who had lectured there 150 years ago, and been one of India’s first cultural ambassadors.

Jay also elaborated on the obsession of Tamil people (not all Indians) with movies. Poor people will sell blood to get money to buy movie tickets, every house has pictures of movie stars, MGR, leader of Tamil, and a huge movie star had the largest ever funeral, more people attended than for Ghandi, lines formed for miles to donate kidney to him, and their were many suicides on his death. His successor in office is one of his former first ladies in films. People will do anything to see a movie, Getting in line at 6AM to get a ticket for a 10 PM show. Movies are the number one source of entertainment, feeding the dreams everyone at lower levels has for happy lives.

We drive on to Thanjavur, the capitol of the Great Chola Empire, which ruled from the tenth through the twelfth centuries, and extended over all of South India, and as far as Sri Lanka and even Bali. The Chola kings who were great patrons of the arts built most of the 93 temples at Thanjavur, of which the Brihadisvara Temple is the showpiece. While they lavished their wealth on the temples, they also encouraged the belief in the divine right of kings, and the practice of donating a part of one’s wealth to the temple for spiritual gain.

The Brihadisvara Temple, also known as the “Big Temple”, was built between 985 and 1012 AD and is a World Heritage monument. It is a magnificent structure with a 14- story high vimana, a towered sanctuary that houses the main deity. Built mainly of granite, the temple has superb inscriptions and sculptures of Shiva, his consort Durga and Vishnu.


After leaving Birhadisvara, we drive to a former palace that now houses an excellent museum which has an exceptional collection of bronzes, many of them of a dancing Lord Shiva, surrounded by a ring of fire.


After a very good lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant, we drive approximately three hours to Kanadukathan in the Chettinad region, stopping at an Ayyanar temple located in a forest. This temple is a mix of craft, myths and rituals and have local deities which are considered to be village guardians. In Hinduism, symbolism plays an important role, and to ensure that the deity can reach them speedily in times of need, devotees bring terra cotta horses as offerings. Walking up the forest path to the shrine, we pass thousands of these horses, produced over hundreds of years for an annual festival, many of which are in an advanced state of disrepair. Behind the main shrine is the poignant sight of hundreds of terra cotta dolls, brought as offerings by women who are unable to have children.



We arrive at Hotel Visalam, a marvelous old Chettiar mansion that has been refurbished and retains much of its original teak woodwork from Myanmar as well as its former furnishings. The Chettiars were highly successful business men who achieved wealth through money lending. We’re given a tour of the beautiful house and grounds, then shown to our large, high-ceiling, marble-floored suite.

After a swim in the large pool, which is large enough for me to do laps, we clean up, and blog. Carol and I meet Jay in the lobby. At our request, he’s brought a map of South India and shows us the route we’ve taken thus far and identifies for us the territories ruled by various rulers over the centuries.

We meet Steve and Karen for dinner on the second floor balcony on yet another perfect evening of weather, then retire.

Stars of the show, Tamil and Chola, January 29

After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the capital of the Chola Empire, Chidambaram, one of Tamil Nadu’s most important holy towns. We are traveling comfortably in a minibus, which has a capacity of ten. With Ravi, our driver, and Jay, our guide, we are only six. Ravi has done an excellent job of driving. He’s friendly, but doesn’t say much. I’m gaining confidence that we’ll probably survive the constant threat of oncoming traffic on our side of the road, though I have asked Jay for the Hindu word for death.

We pass a wedding hall, and Jay asks if we’d like to go in. Of course, we would. Outside the hall is a big poster with pictures of the bride and groom, as well as smaller pictures, below them, of men who have contributed to the cost of the poster.


We’ve seen these posters elsewhere, and sometimes they contain a picture of a movie star, as well. (Tamil Nadu people are crazy for movies. Jay says that people will watch a movie fifteen or more times. We’ve seen people sitting parked in cars and vans, watching movies.)

We are welcomed into the wedding hall, where the wedding ceremony is just ending, and the bride and groom are receiving guests up on a stage. Gifts lay piled up on the floor beneath the stage to help the couple start their new lives together. Weddings are huge events in India, with families saving for twenty years to pay the cost. A modest wedding may have 1,000-1,500 guests. Everyone wears their finest dress–a new sari is a must–and gold and jewels abound. A photographer and videographer are recording the event on the stage, and Jay encourages me to go up to photograph with them. The crowd parts to allow me to do this.


Guests at the wedding insist that Steve, Karen, Carol and I go up on the stage to greet the bride and groom, which we do. We’re invited to have breakfast several times, but Jay explains to disappointed would-be hosts that we’ve just eaten and must leave. Before we go, we pose for photographs with the bride and groom. On our way out, we’re given gift bags from the wedding, which include a cocoanut and other goodies. As we drive away from the wedding, we pass many guests, women with flowers in their hair, jewels and fine saris, riding on back of motor bikes. In the car, Jay tells us that DVDs will be made of the festivities and sent to wedding guests, and that we will be the stars of the DVD.

We leave Ponchiderry, which was granted independence from the French in 1956. Goa achieved its independence from Portugal even later, in 1963. Both are now separate union territories governed by India, but not states. They do elect representatives to the government.

Arriving in Chidambara, we head to the Nataraja Templ, which is dedicated to Shiva in his form as Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Shiva was the patron god of the Chola kings. The temple area covers sixty acres, dwarfing the temple we saw in Chennai.

Jay had told us that it was the goal of every dancer to dance at the temple of “The Dancing Shiva” and we witness several young girls fulfilling their dream. Because of the dance recital we attended in Chennai, we’re able to appreciate the dancing much more than we otherwise would have.

The temple is run by dikshithar priests who have beards and hair tied with a knot in back. They are Brahmins and wear a string around their body as a sign of their status. At this temple, any married dikshithar can serve as priest for any god, so they rotate around to different shrines, but serve the gods 24/7, 365 days a year. The temple is a hubbub of activity, people old and young, priests, families, beggars. Bells clang, and people crowd to see the priests inside the shrines waving oil lamps in circles.




We leave the dancing Shiva and drive a short distance, stopping at a restaurant for lunch. Steve, Karen and Carol all have local, Tamil food on a metal tray, with rice, all of which they eat with their hands. I opt for Chinese–hot and sour soup and Chinese vegetables with rice, all of which is surprisingly good.

After lunch, we drive through the heart of Tamil Nadu, just missing buses, trucks and motor bikes, passing through small towns with markets, seeing damage from the recent cyclone, tractors loaded high with sugar cane, trucks stacked with hay, oxen ploughing rice fields, moving stores of materials carried on bicycles. We talk with Jay about everything from trees we see to snakes, rats and mongoose in rice fields to corruption in government and 20-year delays in court cases to the Tamil Nadu political party’s pledge to give poor families a color TV, if elected. This pledge has been honored, with millions of color TVs given to everyone with electricity. The populace favored this over the opposition party’s pledge of rice for one rupee (two cents) a kilo. Who needs rice when you can watch your favorite movies in color?



We stop at Darasuram to see the Airavatesvara Temple, the third of the great Chola temples after Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. Originally called the Rajarajesvaram temple when it was built in 1146, it was renamed Airavatesvara Temple after Indra’s white elephant, who followers of Shiva claim, worshipped Shiva at this temple. Built mainly of granite, the temple has pillars with beautifully carved Apsara and friezes of lively dancing figures and musicians. Each of the pillars within the temple illustrates mythological stories showing the penance of Parvati, Shiva’s consort. Though the temple was largely destroyed, it has been carefully reconstructed as an archeological site, not a living temple, allowing us to photograph shrines that we could not take pictures of in a temple that was being used. The temple is definitely worth seeing, but not nearly as interesting as living temples.



We continue on towards our hotel, Hotel Mantra Veppathur. Because the hotel cannot be reached in our vehicle, we stop by the side of the road and are ferried in on a large golf-cart type vehicle. We check into a very nice two bedroom villa with a large, tiled common area, which we share with Steve and Karen.

Steve and Karen scout out the pool and spa, making massage reservations for themselves at 6:30, and for Carol and me at 9:00. Steve, Karen and I have the large, lovely pool to ourselves. They go for massages, we hang out at he room, then go for a fair dinner at the hotel’s vegetarian restaurant, are joined at our table later by the Sugarmans, leave them for our (excellent) massages, then reconnect briefly in our villa, before retiring.

Living in peace and harmony, Pondicherry, January 29

Breakfast at the hotel, and then on the road again, heading south for Pondicherry, which was ruled by the French until Indian independence. Along the way, we see a man on a moped, virtually hidden by the pots he is carrying for sale, and bullocks with colorful horns, painted for the harvest festival. We talk with Jay, peppering him with questions that occur to us from time to time to try to learn more about the history and culture of this region. As we enter Ponchiderry, we see policemen, still sporting bright red caps that were worn by the French.

Pondicherry is best known for Auroville, “The City of Dawn” which was established in 1968 to continue the teachings and beliefs of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo who lived and worked here. Built as a utopian paradise by his disciple, Mirra Alfassa, also known as Mother, it was planned so that people could live and work here irrespective of religion, caste or nationality. More than 2000 people from some fifty countries occupy the area, the land donated and supervised by by India and the project recognized by UNESCO. We walk about a kilometer to the most striking feature, the Matrimandir, a large, golden sphere, composed of some 4000, gold-colored disks, which houses a white marble chamber (which we are not able to enter) that is a meditation center. Inside the chamber a crystal which reflects the sun’s rays serves as a focal point to aid meditation.


From Auroville, we drive to our hotel Le Dupliex, a charming French house that has been converted to a lovely hotel. Because Steve taught a student whose family owns the hotel, they are upgraded to a very large suite. Our room, though, is more than adequate. We lunch in the breezy, open courtyard of the hotel, then relax for awhile before setting out for a walk through the former French Quarter with its elegant colonial mansions, tree-lined boulevards, bars and cafes, which provide a sense of the history of the town.

We stop and give an elephant minder a few rupees, so that the elephant will bless Carol by touching her on the head with his trunk. We walk around and stop in a rather upscale shop in which we buy some very nice scarves.


We stop at an ashram, the former home of Sri Aurobindo, whose philosophy inspired Auroville. We walk through, silently and without photographing, as required. People file by the tomb of the philosopher, some bowing or praying to give homage to him, touching their heads to the flower petals that form an intricate design on the tomb. Many people sit in the room, meditating. We continue walking, past the bed used by Mother and the chair in which Sri Aurobindo used to sit. It really is quite moving, perhaps more so than our visit to Auroville.

From the ashram, we walk by the sea. Large crowds of families stroll along the walk and beach, dressed in their fine clothing on this Saturday evening. We discuss differences with Jay in our cultures, how nobody would dress up in the US to walk by the beach, and how this serves as the major source of entertainment for Indians, other than going to movies. Eating out is not common as it is in the States, and, in fact, is thought by many to signal a problem in the family. Only the rich would think of going to the theater, or a concert or dance, except for periodic festivals at temple.


We return to the hotel, where Karen is waiting, having gone ahead in anticipation of receiving a call from a friend of a friend, who is a ceramicist living in Pondicherry. Karen tried, a number of times to reach her by email from the States and had tried to call before, all unsuccessfully. A last try this afternoon, managed to connect with Deborah Smith, who said she’d call later. Karen told us that Deborah was coming by in 15 minutes and wanted us to drive her by her house for a quick look.

Our experience with Deborah is a testament to the virtue of (Karen’s) persistence. A Stanford graduate, she studied pottery in Japan, before moving to join Sri Aurobindo. Her now husband, Ray Meeker, a talented ceramicist and architect, joined her in Pondicherry, where they’ve lived, worked and taught for more than forty years. Their house, in the French Quarter is absolutely stunning, modern, high ceilings, large rooms and an open atrium. The house would have been more than worth the visit, but the collection of pottery they had displayed, almost all of which was done by former students, some of whom are now nationally-known potters was just fantastic. Carol and I, and the Sugarmans, we’re blown away by it, and Deborah was most gracious in spending an hour or so showing and talking to us about the collection. This was a truly unexpected delight.

After, we had an excellent and very reasonably-priced dinner in a restaurant called Le Club, recommended by both Deborah and Fodor’s, half a block away from Deborah’s house, then walked the five blocks back to our hotel to retire.

Rocks and “rocking”, Chennai, January 28

After breakfast with the Sugarmans, we drive along the coast to Mamallapuram (formerly called Mahaballipuram). This is a kind of open-air museum of Tamil art in rock, which is the work of students under the patronage of the Pallava rulers. Strewn along the coast are some outstanding examples of 7th century sculpture – forms of temples (not used as temples, but which became the basis for the architecture of future temples), an enormous bas-relief depicting scenes from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, and an amphitheater of six chariot-shaped temples. Entering the first area, you are greeted by an enormous boulder, which appears to rest precariously on a slope, having apparently rolled down long ago from a higher perch. The landmark of this collection of works is the Shore Temple, located right on The Bay of Bengal, a world heritage monument, and the only surviving one from a complex of probably seven temples, the other’s having been claimed by the sea.




We returned to the hotel, where we had several hours to lunch and relax, before being picked up and taken for a lecture/demonstration on the classical Bharatnatyam dance. Bharat Natyam is one of the oldest dance forms in India and was nurtured in the temples and courts of Southern India. The art was handed down as a living tradition under the “Devadasi” system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians. They also tended to serve the priests, as unwilling concubines.

As we entered the parking lot of a complex that contained crafts and examples of the architecture of several areas in the South, there was a bus and many cars, which led us to think that, instead of a private demonstration, we were going to be part of a large group. Not so. We were treated to an hour and a quarter performance by girls from ages 9 to 19, who danced with great skill and enthusiasm. Our enjoyment of the program was enhanced significantly by Devika, a well-known former danseuse and an established expert on this particular dance form, who explained the dances and techniques to us.



Back to the hotel for a quick shower, then an excellent dinner outdoors, enjoying cool breezes and tolerating rather loud music from a party near the restaurant. Only disappointment was that they were out of the appetizer I’d wanted, seared sea scallops with Wasabi-infused swordfish roe. Damn.

Gods, food and textiles, Chennai, January 27

Fond reunion with the Sugarmans for breakfast, then headed to the lobby to be picked up by our guide, Jay. We’re staying at Vivanti, part of theTaj Hotel group, like the rest we’ve been at. We have a very nice villa, looking out on The Bay of Bengal, with hammocks hung outside, beyond the patio. Place has a nice, resorty feel to it. (Karen says it reminds her of Hawaii.)

We are driven around Chennai, formerly called Madras and the capital city of the Southern state of Tamil Nadu. In the 17th century, Chennai was the economic and political capital of the East India Company, the British trading company which eventually led to the colonization of India. The history of this area goes back to the fourth millennium BC and the local language, Tamil, is the oldest language in India. Economically, Chennai is one of the fastest growing cities in the country attracting investments from both the automobile (known as the Detroit of India) and the information technology sector. Land is rather inexpensive and water, power and other infrastructure is either in place or being planned.

We visit the heavily carved and colorful 16th century Kapleeswarar temple at the Mylapore temple area. As today is the 63rd anniversary of Indian Independence, the Hindu temple is even more teeming with people off for the holiday than usual. The temple is not only a place for prayer, but also a place for meeting, celebration, shelter, learning, performing, and communication, but not for dating (95% of the marriages are arranged marriages). People come bathed and dressed in fine clothes. Jay stresses that the Hindu religion is very tolerant and respectful of everyone’s beliefs, giving people freedom to pray to whichever god they want in the manner that they choose. We stroll leisurely around the temple, observing the goings-on.




After the temple, we continue to the home of Sabita and Kittu Radhakrishnan. Sabita is a charming woman, our age, a renowned chef who has published three cook books, including one for children. We are joined by her 91-year old mother and her 17-year old granddaughter, Aditi, who is considering going to school in Singapore. Sabi has prepared a delicious lunch for us. After lunch, Sabi gives us a slide presentation on Indian textiles and shows us pieces from her excellent collection. She started and ran a textile boutique, has written pieces on textile history and is now active in promoting Indian textiles through non-profits she’s involved with. In addition, she’s a playwright. After 2 1/2hours, we say goodbye to Sabi and Kittu and drive to a nearby crafts area she recommends, where the Sugarmans buy a number of pieces.


We return to the hotel and rest for awhile, before going up to the lobby with the Sugarmans, taking the bottle of wine Carol and I have brought from the Taj in Mumbai. We’re told they won’t open our bottle, so we order some drinks, then go to the very good seafood restaurant in the hotel, where we sit outside, enjoy a lovely sea breeze and succeed in convincing the restaurant to open and serve our bottle of wine–YESSSS.

Caving in–Day 2, Aurangabad, January 25

After a morning massage (I wasn’t about to let Carol one-up me with hers, yesterday), I meet Carol for breakfast, a new (or at least less achy) man. We’re picked up and set out from Aurangabad to the caves at Ellora.

Now a city of two million, for 25 years, starting in the late 17th century, Aurangabad was established by Aurangzeb as capital of the whole mogul territory he conquered, that stretched from Kabul to Rangoon. Aurangzeb was the mightiest of the mogul emperors, and son of the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jeham. Shah Jeham, which means, ruler of the universe, had intended that his older son succeed him. Aurangzeb begged to differ with Daddy, and fought and killed his older brother, then imprisoned his father in the fort at Agra. Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years, until 1707. He was buried, at his wish, among tombs of holy men in a plain tomb. After him, weak moguls ruled and were divided by the East India Company. The mogul rebellion in 1856 was squashed quickly and brutally by the East India Company. An angry Queen Victoria took over and put it under British rule, where it remained until indpendence in 1947.

En route to Ellora, we drive by a large, old English military garrison in Aurangabard, still used as such by the Indian army, and then past one of the gates of the city (there used to be 52, but most have been destroyed). Twenty or thirty minutes later we pass a 12th century fort, some of the walls of which are still there. The landscape is hilly with some hilltop plateaus.

Arriving at Ellora (about a 45-minute drive), we visit the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves. (The thirty caves at Ajanta are all Buddhist.) Dating between 600 and 1100 AD, the caves lie along an ancient trading route and are thought to be the work of priests and pilgrims who used this route. Though the caves at Ajanta were “lost” for a thousand years and covered by dense vegetation, before being discovered in 1819 by John Smith, the Ellora caves remained in view and, hence, we’re subjected to vandalism and the elements Twelve of the 34 caves are Buddhist created between 600-800 AD; seventen are Hindu and date between 600-900 AD; and five of the caves are Jain, carved between 800-1100 AD.

The clear masterpiece of this collection, and the one we visit first, is the magnificent Kailasnatha, a Hindu temple. This is far and away the most outstanding of the rock cut structures at Ellora and is completely open to the elements. It is the only building that was begun from the top. To try to explain what that means, basically, they took a mountain of rock and, carving down from the top, created the entire structure, composed of multiple buildings, sculpture, columns, etc.. You don’t want to make a mistake on a job like that, because whoever is supervising is not going to be pleased. I imagine him saying, “Damnit, Harry, that’s not right. Now let’s just go find another mountain and start over, huh. And, next time time, please watch what you’re doing.”

Begun in 750 AD, Kailasnatha took 150 years to complete. The temple is carved out of 85,000 cubic meters of rock and required that 300,000 tons of rock be removed. Not to get too technical, it’s pretty friggin’ amazing.




After Kailasnatha, everything else is bound to be anticlimactic, and it is. The Buddhist temple, which is carved out of stone from front to back, and top to bottom, as were all of the Ajanta temples and monasteries is excellent, but nothing we haven’t seen at Ajanta. The Jain temple is interesting because of its depiction of Jain figures and because it combines elements of the Hindu and Buddhist, being partially constructed from the top down, creating a building open to the air in front, and the rest carved into the rock in the manner of Buddhist caves.

On the road to and from Ellora, we experience more of the contradictions that are India. The landscape abutting the road is strewn with garbage throughout, migrant settlements dot the fields, yet women walk along the road, or ride on the back of motorcycles, dressed in beautiful, colorful saris. Driving seems suicidal, though we pass a stand built for police to direct traffic with three signs, “Wear Helmets” “Fasten Seat Belts” and “Avoid Sound Pollution”, all of which are uniformly ignored, along with any traffic rules that may exist. The only safe thing on the road is a cow. “Keep Our Containment Clean and Green” reads a banner strung across the road.


Ali has been a very good guide. Very knowledgable about a wide range of subjects, ranging from history to archeology to religion to culture to agriculture and local customs. Interesting fellow, too, planning to go on for a PhD in politics. Lacks the warmth of some guides we’ve had, and speaks very fast, and so sometimes a bit tough to understand, but, overall, quite excellent.

So, is it worth two days out of your vacation to go see a bunch of caves? You betcha.

We’re now en route to Mumbai, where we’ll change planes for Chennai and head to the hotel, where we’ll meet the Sugarmans for breakfast tomorrow.

I must admit that this blogging is fun, if a bit time consuming. It compels you to digest and reflect upon what you are seeing and doing. It’s been gratifying getting some very kind notes from people in different cities and countries saying that they were enjoying the effort.

Caving in–Day one, Aurangabad, January24

Nice buffet breakfast at the hotel. Picked up by our guide, Ali, and driver, for a day at Ajanta. We’d come to Aurangabad to see the caves at Ajanta and, tomorrow, the caves at Ellora. As you’ll read, Ajanta is spectacular, but first some reflections on what we see and learn when we travel, borne from the two-hour rides to and from Ajanta.

After fifteen minutes or so of our ride, having had only very limited and brief conversation with Ali, I asked him a question, he answered and I thanked him and said that we’d be interested in hearing anything he’d like to comment on as to what we were passing along the way. This simple invitation unleashed a wealth of commentary, Ali telling us that it would be his privilege and honor to talk about these things, if he would not be getting on our nerves. I said that I’d make him a deal, we’d tell him if he was getting on our nerves and, otherwise, he should assume that we were interested in what he was talking about. It’s clear that, had we not invited his comments, most of the four hours there and back would have passed in silence.

This invitation also opened up a connection between us, as Ali, learning that we were from Chicago, told us that he’d spent two years there, and knew and loved the city well. We began talking about things in the city and he mentioned Brookfield Zoo. We asked whether he’d been there and he said, yes, that he’d seen Bengal tigers there. We said that we’d seen Bengal tigers in Khana National park in central India on our first trip, and we all laughed at the irony of him coming to see Bengal tigers in Chicago and us going to his country to seek them out.

It’s a good question as to what travelers learn about any place they go to. In India, we saw some highlights of Mumbai, we’ll see the caves, we’ve visited fascinating places on our previous trip, such as Varanasi, Delhi, Agra and Udaipur, seen a camel fair in Pushkar and attended an Indian wedding. But, despite the fact that Mumbai and Delhi, together, hold more than 40 million people, Ali told us that 70% of the Indian population is in villages. So, in a sense, we won’t see the real India, and that’s true, too, of the way most of us travel in most countries. (As an aside, Carol and I have been privileged to visit and meet and talk with people in rural villages in both trips we’ve made to Ghana with our good friends, Dick and Susie Kiphart. That’s been fabulous, but, even then, we’re only able to spend very limited time there.)

But, despite our limitations, let me try to give you a brief description of what we learned from/saw with Ali today. Towns teeming with activity because of market day, held on rotating days in villages to give the many people who live in villages far from cities and roads the opportunity to sell and buy goods. Numerous small groups of teepee and tent-like structures, often roofed with tarps, lived in by migrant workers, who leave their villages for eight months a year (returning for the four monsoon months) to work the farms of wealthier people. Many of their children are delivered by midwives in these temporary quarters. Sugar cane and cotton are the main crops. Cotton piled in fields near gin mills. Tiny temples by the roadside for farmers to worship their gods during breaks in their day. Dry river beds of “seasonal” rivers filled in monsoon season. Roadside crematoriums outside towns. Teak, castor, arcadia and banyan trees, which drop roots and grow new trees (“walking” trees). Ghandi white hats worn by farmers (and yesterday’s dabbawallas), a style chosen by Ghandi and continued by Nehru because the hats are simple, cheap, and not Brittish. Cricket match played on a field strewn with litter and encircled by motor bikes of “fans.” Driving on these 2-lane roads is a perpetual game of chicken, encountering other cars, buses, people riding two (or more) to a motor bike, no helmets, women on the back wearing colorful saris, ox-drawn carts, trucks piled high with grains, cotton and people.

All this and more, before even getting to the caves, located two hours from Aurangabad, a modest-sized Indian city of some two million. The caves at Ajanta date from 200 BC to 650 AD and are cut from the volcanic lavas of the Deccan Trap in a steep crescent shaped hillside in a forested ravine. Carol and I elected to forego the easier way to enter the site, instead hiking down from a ridge opposite the site. We’ll undoubtedly pay the price with aches tomorrow, but think it was a good decision.

At the height of its importance, the Ajanta Caves housed over 200 Buddhist monks some of them artists as well as numerous craftsmen and laborers. These caves or vihararas are remarkable for the quality of their carvings and their murals which relate the life story of The Buddha and reveal images of the royal court, ordinary family life, and street scenes. Some of the cave murals relate to the Buddha’s previous births.

It’s impossible to convey just how astounding these monasteries and caves, carved out of a mountain of basalt stone are. The whole complex is essentially a single block of stone. The site is owned by the Indian government and as a World Heritage Site is governed by rules of UNESCO. Rather than babble on with more words, I’ll just attach a bunch of photos to try to give some idea of what I’m talking about.






Sorry, but that’s about the best I can do right now.

After arriving back at the hotel late in the afternoon, Carol had a massage and I swam briefly and sat by the pool. We had a lavish Indian barbecue buffet dinner outdoors at the hotel, and were treated to a quite delightful local dance performance by three engaging and brightly-costumed dancers.

If I ever finish this blog, I’m going to collapse and join Carol, who had the good sense to crash a while ago.

Wallas, wallas everywhere, Mumbai, January 23

Breakfast in the hotel, joined by Sue and her accountant-husband, Herb, who was feeling much better. They got up earlier than they needed to in order to have breakfast with us.

Picked up at 9AM by Joshua and our driver, Mohammed. First stop was the Victoria Terminus, a most impressive building from the outside, but rather disappointing inside. Hustle and bustle was not especially “bustlely” and there was no central hall to compare to any of many we’ve seen in the US. Still, the fact that about a million of Bombay’s five or so million daily railroad commuters pass through it is noteworthy.


Joshua is quite involved in, and very knowledgable about, the Jewish community in India, which now is primarily in Bombay, where some 4000 live. He told us of the two communities in Bombay, an ancient one, of which he is a descendant, called Bene Israel which fled Israel when Antiochus came, and a Baghdadi community, which came from Persia much later. The Sassoon family was part of the latter group and acquired great wealth, first through the opium trade with China (for tea sold to the British), and later through textiles and then banking. Most of the Baghdadi community has now emigrated to England, the US or Israel. Hostility between the two Jewish communities no longer exists.

The Sassoons were responsible for building two of the three synagogues we visited this morning, the Magen David and Knesset Elyahu. The other, Tipheteth Israel is a Bene Israel synagogue.


All three were quite attractive, two of them having balconies for women congregants. Joshua also spoke of the beautiful, but virtually defunct, synagogue we will see in Cochin, and of others, as well. He knew of the Bene Ephraim group that I spoke to Shonali about our visiting in the South, before I concluded that it would be too difficult to do for this trip. His friend, Sharon, who we met outside one of the synagogues, works for ORT in Mumbai and has visited and helped the very poor Bene Ephraim community. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach Sharon later to try to talk to him about Bene Ephraim.

From the synagogues, we drove to see the Dhobi Ghat, an enormous cooperative open air laundry, similar to the one we saw yesterday, but much larger. Laundry is collected by laundrymen, dhobiwallas, and brought to the ghat where different types of laundry is washed by different people and somehow sorted out through small markings and, rather miraculously, returned from whence it came.


An even more amazing version of this type of business are the Dabbawallas, who we saw outside the Church Gate railway station. Every morning the Dabbawallas call on homes in the suburbs to pick up “Dabbas” or lunch boxes of home cooked food prepared for office goers who left at the crack of dawn to take commuter trains into the city. Transporting these lunches on local trains, they gather at Church Gate station to segregate them area wise before they are delivered. Each lunch box looks exactly alike, but without any modern technological equipment, more than 50,000 lunches are delivered on time daily to the correct recipient. It is a system based on memorized codes and leg muscles as they load multiple boxes on to coffin size trays and rush them through the chaos of Mumbai to the correct offices, usually on bicycles.




The Dabbawallas have been studied by The Harvard Business School as an example of teamwork. It is truly amazing to see. As we were watching them, who should pull up in another car but Sue and Herb, our breakfast companions, and their guide Hanna–who happens to be Joshua’s wife! We think Joshua is terrific, have exchanged contact information and hope to stay in touch.

We visited a couple of other modern art galleries with little success, so we abandoned the effort and instead headed for the vegetable, textile, pet and gold markets, walking around to observe and photograph. We returned to the hotel to pack up, blog, email and have a short high tea, before being picked up to head for the airport for our 6:45 flight to Aurangabad.

Driving here is harrowing, a constant beeping of horns, with four lanes regularly converted into six as cars, tuk-tuks and motor cycles stratal the lane markers, which appear to be mere suggestions. We marvel that we don’t see the roadways strewn with the bodies of the unhelmeted motorcyclists who weave in and out at high speeds.

Mumbai is quite an appealing city, and I’d happily return, as we have just scratched the surface. It’s location on the water gives it an open feel that Delhi lacks.

Flight to Aurangabad is short (less than an hour) and uneventful. Our hotel, the Taj Residence, is quite nice, but pales, as almost every hotel in the world would, as compared to the Taj Palace in Mumbai. Security is serious. After checking in, we have a really excellent meal outdoors at the hotel, then return to the room to retire.

Playing it by ear, Mumbai, January 22

After about three very welcome hours sleep, we awoke before the call we’d left. Finished yesterday’s blog, coffee brought into the room, then an excellent buffet breakfast in the Sea Lounge.

Down in the lobby, we are greeted by the Peirce & Leslie representative du jour and, shortly thereafter, introduced to our guide, Joshua, who tells us the plan for the day, which involves a good deal of looking at Victorian buildings. I tell him that, while buildings are okay, we’re really much more interested in people.

Joshua “gets it” right away and proceeds to change the bulk of what we do for the day. This flexibility to change is one of the great advantages of planning your own itinerary, either alone, or with one other couple. Instead of walking by and into a bunch of buildings, we drove by them. Instead of visiting the Victoria Terminus on a Sunday, we drove by and will experience its bustle tomorrow, on a week day.

We drove to an area called Bon Ganga. Where Lord Rama is alleged to have shot an arrow (“Bon”) and produced water (Ganges). We walked around the area, visiting a small Hindu shrine, where various different ceremonies were taking place simultaneously. We walked around a residential area, saw a small outside community laundry business being conducted (we’ll see a much larger version tomorrow), went into a local home, watched children play on a playground and young boys playing cricket on a field and looked inside, but could not enter, a Jain Temple. The Jains are believers in complete non-violence, to the extent of wearing cloths around their mouths to prevent their breath from doing harm or from accidentally harming insects. They eat nothing that grows below ground. We learned about the Farsi people, who do not either bury or burn their dead, but place them ceremoniously on mounds (the Towers of Silence) to be eaten by vultures, and we drove near the site. Since we’d expressed interest in the slums, Joshua walked us through a small portion of a small slum, taking pains to point out that the residents were hard workers who kept their homes clean. We watched a boy on a rooftop, losing the kite he was flying in a kite fight. All of these tastes of real life, was far more interesting to us than what our original schedule would have been.



The rest of the day, we walked in a garden area and saw the coast around Mumbai, called the Queen’s Necklace because of its shape and the sparkling effect of the lights at night. Situated on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has a pleasant feel to it that belies a city of some twenty million people.

We next went to the home at which Ghandi stayed when he lived in Bombay (the name of the city was changed to Mumbai in 1996, in which Joshua said was a purely political move, intended to show that the city was no longer run by the British, who gave it the name). The home has been converted to a fascinating museum that houses pictures of Ghandi, letters from and to him and many dioramas depicting important events in Ghandi’s life. Very worthwhile, and well executed.

We went to the prince of Wales Museum (now called something else) which houses a great collection of various different styles and periods of miniature paintings, which Joshua explained to us. There was also an interesting room of paintings and sculptures of Krishna the ninth incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu (some say Buddha was the tenth). We visited a couple modern art galleries, but the modern art museum was closed because their exhibits were being changed.

Returning to the hotel around four, Carol and I partook of the lavish high tea spread put on daily by the hotel. Carol met a woman named Sue Bard from New York, who was alone, because her husband was not feeling well. We visited with Sue, who joined us at our table and then we headed back to the room to clean up, relax and blog before being picked up at seven for our dinner tonight.

We were driven out almost an hour to dinner in the nice residential area of Branda at the apartment of Anil and Ninaz Pathak, which Shonali (the travel agent I raved about yesterday) arranged for us. En route, our driver, Mohammed, who I suspect would love to be a guide, pointed out a beautiful and beautifully lit Muslim hospital, the most expensive home in the world, a $2 billion structure that looks like an apartment building, but houses only a wealthy family and several brightly-lit areas where large weddings were taking place. The traffic seemed heavy and harrowing to us, but Mohammed described it as light because it was Sunday evening.

We spent a wonderful evening with Anil, Ninaz, and their friends, Lalita and Roger, who they invited over to join us. All were involved in the travel business, Anil as Chairman of Peirce & Leslie, Ninaz who works with the head oh human resources of Singapore Air, and Lalita and Roger, who were both flight attendants with Air India. All are in their fort ties and the lively conversation ranged from travel to US politics to Disney Cruises, which Lalita and Roger would like to take their small children on. Ninaz prepared an excellent dinner of fish and chicken, we drank a very nice Indian Cabernet and had cocoanut and green apple ice creams for dessert. Anil’s grasp of, and thoughtfulness about his business were both impressive and exciting to me. He clearly gets what we travelers are after. We brought Anil and Ninaz a copy of NO SECRET WHERE ELEPHANTS WALK and all four of them loved looking at it.

Our driver, who had waited three and a half hours, picked us up and we drove back, the weddings we’d passed en route still going strong. We passed colorful, lit horse-drawn carriages on the waterfront, as we pulled into our hotel to retire.

Aloft, Jan 20-21

Warning: if you’re into learning about India, you may want to skip this post. But, if you’re willing to wallow in the travails of travel, and indulge a bit of background, read on.

You’d figure that leaving home 3 1/2 hours prior to flight time would be plenty of time for a half hour taxi ride to the airport, but not necessarily so, in a driving Chicago snow storm. In the first hour and a quarter we covered what would normally have taken ten minutes. A check of the flight time online in the taxi revealed that it’s on schedule, as planes always are when you may be running late. Skillful driving by our regular and highly reliable airport driver, Clifton, managed to get us to O’Hare by 6:20 PM, for our 7:55 flight, and we sailed through check in and security in good time.

After sharing a tasty tuna wrap at the gate, a check of the flight time shows a delay of two hours. This would leave us an hour layover to make the switch in planes, if the 2-hour delay does not get extended. Not exactly a relaxing start, but, at least our flight has not (yet) been cancelled, as was our November flight to Ghana. But these are the joys of air travel and, if I’ve gained any maturity–something my daughters would not concede–it’s in recognizing that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

Boarded on schedule to be only two hours late, but de-icing and various other activities made our lift-off four hours behind schedule, almost midnight. Since our layover was to be three hours, we may not make it to Mumbai, when planned. Luckily, I’m mature.

Well, anyway, we’re aloft, but a long, long way from India. We’re flying Etihad Airways. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it turned out to be the most economical (that sounds better than cheapest, doesn’t it). Since Etihad is the airline of The Emirates, it means that we need to fly through Abu Dhabi, but, hey, nothing’s perfect. In a scant fourteen hours we’ll be there, then on to Mumbai, maybe. It’s Friday evening (now Saturday morning), and we aren’t scheduled to arrive in Mumbai until early Sunday morning. That’s a pretty long time in coach, but our frequent flier status on Etihad is not exactly platinum.

We’re looking forward to our trip for two reasons. First, India is fabulous, teeming with life, color, religion and “foreignness”. In short, exotic. For the past dozen years or so, Carol and I have leaned to the exotic, though, at least initially, that was not a conscious objective. It’s not that Europe, for example, is not wonderful. Of course, it is. But, for us, it doesn’t carry the same sense of excitement that traveling to a country with a totally different culture, look and feel does.

Our first trip to India, in 2006, took us to the North of India, and was quite mind-blowing. To give you an idea, the Taj Mahal probably ranked about fourth in our favorite experiences. I’d rank the 2006 trip we took with our friends, Joe and Madeline Wikler, who we’d met several years earlier on a biking trip to New Zealand, as among the very best trips we’ve taken. Carol loved it, but would rank it a bit lower. But I’m writing this, so it was among our very best. Carol and I returned to India for a short time in 2009, en route to Nepal and Bhutan, and I spent another four or five days there, in the Kulu Valley, on my return trip to Bhutan in 2010.

The second reason we are looking forward to the trip so much is that most of it will be spent with our good friends, Steve Sugarman and Karen Carlson, from California. (I’ll refer to them as the Sugarmans from time to time, though that’s not strictly accurate.). Steve was a law school classmate and friend, who spent considerable time sleeping in our flat in London, when Carol and I lived there in 1967-68, and Steve was engaged in various projects in London. He and I collaborated on an article on British antitrust law that was published in the Stanford Law Review, back in 1969 (egads, forty-three years ago). When Steve’s not on what seems to some of his friends to be a perpetual sabbatical or leave, he teaches law at Boalt Hall (Berkeley), where he’s been a fixture (albeit a very mobile one) for forty years. Karen teaches ESL, and is a thoroughly delightful and adventurous companion. We’ve taken short trips with the Sugarmans in the US, but Carol and I bowed out of the Egypt/Jordan trip we’d planned with them, because of its proximity (two years ago) to our grandson, Jasper’s, birth. So, the prospect of extended time with Steve and Karen holds great appeal to us.

The Sugarmans have been to the North of India (having gone shortly before we did and given us some excellent tips), but neither of us have been to the South, so we’ll explore it together. Because Steve and Karen have been to Mumbai, they’re going someplace else while we’re in Mumbai, and we’ll meet a few days later.

Actually, Carol and I were supposed to have gone to Mumbai in 2009, but a few months before our trip, the Taj Mahal, where we were to have stayed, was invaded by terrorists. Despite my assurances to Carol that the Taj would then have been the safest place in the world after the attack (which I sincerely believed), she decided that she would not be comfortable there, so we stayed in and around Delhi. This time, though, we’re headed to the Taj, hopefully “hold the terrorists.”

We’re confident that this will be another great trip, as we’ve planned it again with the aid of the fabulous travel agent in Delhi that we’ve used three times before, Shonali Datta of Peirce & Leslie. I’ll resist recounting stories here of why we love Shonali, but if any of you following this blog are contemplating a trip to India, let me know, and I’ll tell you why she’s so great.

Flight to Abu Dhabi long, but uneventful. Plane landed a few minutes after our flight to Mumbai began boarding. Long walk, aided by moving sidewalks, past very upscale shops, got us to the gate in time. As to our bags, stay tuned; we’ll see in Mumbai.

Bottom line: despite terrible roads and snow getting to O’Hare, a 4-hour delay in takeoff to Abu Dhabi, and a delay taking off from Abu Dhabi, we arrive in Mumbai six minutes behind schedule and, after waiting half an hour for pretty-much all the luggage to be unloaded, with our bags (perhaps due to the delay leaving Abu Dhabi). We are met at the Mumbai airport by Wamed, the Peirce & Leslie representative, who walks us out to an unauthorized loading area to be picked up by our driver, cautioning us that we must enter the vehicle very quickly, to avoid being ticketed by the police. We load quickly, but not quickly enough, as, despite a vigorous argument, Wamen pays either a fine, or a bribe, and we are on our way to the truly fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel.

En route at 5 AM, we see a large produce market begin to come to life, great-looking vegetables being unloaded. A bit farther along the way, we see women with large baskets, making their way to the dock to purchase fresh fish.

At the hotel, we are greeted and blessed, red-dotted and garlanded at reception in the old, palace portion of the hotel, then shown up to our large and luxuriously-appointed suite. The pictures I hope I’m about to attach below don’t do it justice.

Before ending our 25-hour door-to-door trip and going to sleep (collapsing), the private butler for our floor, brings in two freshly squeezed orange juices. I have always preferred private butlers to terrorists as attendants.



Take off day, minus a couple

We plan our trips so far in advance, that it’s usually a bit of a shock when they finally come around. That’s sorta fun, though; makes it a surprise trip. This one is no exception. I’m still down in Sarasota, Carol just left after spending a long MLK Day weekend here and tomorrow I leave for Chicago to prepare for takeoff two days later. Main purpose of this post, though, is to try out the new blog. If you’re reading this, it worked. See you soon, in India.