Friday, April 7, 2017


Antarctica seems to affect all visitors the same way.  You can't get  the experience of IT out of your head.  You dream about IT.  You think about IT.  You  smell IT.  And yet, while you are there, IT is difficult to comprehend, to grasp, and even more impossible to describe.  You just have to be there, and once you are there,  IT will be imprinted on your brain forever.   And IT wasn't just the wildlife, the scenery, or the snow and ice that impressed me.  When I set foot on my seventh continent,  I visualized where I was standing on the globe's map, and realized I was walking at the very bottom of our planet in the largest wilderness on earth.   I was so far away from civilization and so remote, I wondered if I should be scared.   I was also somewhere in an immense ocean chock full of ice that came in many sizes and shapes.  There was thin ice with raised edges called pancake ice, brash ice pieces that were much larger, and tabular icebergs standing tall like a high rise in Manhattan.  All of this natural beauty plus an abundance of exotic wildlife was so breathtaking that I had trouble getting my head around it.  Some times it felt like a dream.   In some ways it's like gazing at the nighttime sky and seeing billions, maybe trillions of stars, and thinking how small and inconsequential you, as a human being, are in the universe.   That's just one of many feelings you get when you are in Antarctica.  As a human living on this amazing planet, I am almost nothing, like a speck of dust, a grain of sand, and in this case, a five foot five woman from California wearing a bright yellow waterproof parka and carrying a camera.

Here are some basic facts:  Antarctica's cold temperature and its dry, windy conditions prevent the formation of mature soils which, not surprisingly, makes it unsuitable for plants or animals.  However, animal life abounds in the seas surrounding the continent, like migratory seabirds and marine mammals, which are able to exist for several reasons.   Because the sea water is so cold,  it contains higher quantities of carbon dioxide and oxygen; storm-tossed seas create upwellings of essential nutrients like phytoplankton; and the long hours of daylight during the summer months promote almost continuous photosynthesis which enables an algae bloom that is the basis for the Antarctic food chain.  

We moved through the sea ice in inflatable rubber zodiacs, which accommodated ten passengers plus an experienced driver-guide.   The speed of the zodiac was determined by the ocean's swells, but often it was based on whether we were searching for specific sea life or just sitting still and observing spectacular sights like crabeater seals and a pod of whales lunch-feeding on an abundance of krill.  Spotting a whale off in the distance gave us reason to rev up the throttle, hoping we'd move fast enough to catch a humpback breach or find a pod of orcas.  But most of the time we motored slowly, looking for lazy weddell and leopard seals basking on ice floe, or reveling in the graceful aviation of the terns and albatross that flew overhead.  With some envy we watched a few of our fellow adventurers dressed in dry suits and standing on paddle boards, which gave them an entirely different perspective or at least bragging rights. But the people who really had something to brag about were the brave souls who did the polar plunge. Some travelers chose to kayak rather than take a zodiac, but that required an additional effort that wasn't going to necessarily give me better photo opportunities. Occasionally, a family of gentoo penguins would swim next to our zodiac as if asking to hitch a ride, but most of the time we visited their smelly habitat and admired their antics on land.   Here in Antarctica the gentoo and chinstrap penguins seemed aloof, a behavior that was  far different from the bold and curious king penguins we spent time with in South Georgia.

On one of our outings in the zodiac we picked up a piece of sea ice and found it surprisingly unsalty.  That's because sea water freezes at about 28.8 degrees (F), depending upon its salinity.  The greater the salt concentration, the lower the temperature at which water freezes.  Our guide explained that ice, which forms slowly on the sea surface under calm conditions, is generally not salty to the taste.  We hauled the big chunk of glistening ice back to the ship, which was then broken up into smaller pieces so we could enjoy our favorite cocktail on the "glacial" rocks.

Late one afternoon Mette, our zodiac driver and guide extraordinaire, shut off the motor in the midst of a floating garden of ice chunks and asked if we could take a few minutes to sit quietly in the zodiac and not move.   Her instructions were simple.  "Please, stay still, do not speak, and don't adjust those noisy velcro straps.  I want you to experience Antarctica in a different way."  Immediately all eleven of us fell silent, and a few minutes after closing my eyes,  I tuned everything and everyone out and went deep inside myself to feel, to absorb and, as Mette said, to experience Antarctica.  So, what did you hear? someone might ask.   I heard nothing.  I would answer.  Antarctica is silent.  Well, almost nothing, almost silent, because what I did hear was the glacial ice pack breaking and breathing around us, sounds we wouldn't hear with the zodiac running.  Meditating in the silence of Antarctica triggered so many emotions within me that I could feel the tears.  What is it about nature that evokes out-of-the-blue emotion?  This is not the first time this has happened.  I experienced the same emotional response in Yosemite Valley last year.  Although I am not a religious person, I felt as if God reached down and touched my shoulder.  When I finally opened my eyes,  I realized this was not God.  Instead I was touched by the magic of nature.   I was experiencing the last paradise on earth. 

Please click on the link below to watch a two minute video entitled 

Sunday, March 26, 2017


As a major element of our 2017 trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions, we spent three full days exploring the amazing island of South Georgia, not exactly on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula from our embarkation point at Ushuaia, but well worth the three-day southeasterly jaunt on the open but calm sea. South Georgia is a 100-mile spit of land in the Antarctic region, made famous by intrepid explorers, like Captain Cook in the 18th century and  Ernest Shackleton in the 20th century.  But in most recent times the primary reason adventure travelers go there is to see the amazing wildlife, like the king penguins, the gentoos, the fur and elephant seals, and the unique bird life, 87 species having been recorded there in 2012.  

Of course, the wandering albatross is the superstar that most birders are anxious to see, since they have the largest wingspan of any bird, with a record measurement of 11 feet 10 inches.  The wandering albatross also live their lives to the fullest, some as long as 60 years, but they are slow breeders, so numbers are falling fast.  Due to their very sensitive organs that allow them to sense tiny changes in air pressure and wind velocity, wandering albatross fly from South Georgia thousands of miles northward, always over open water--sometimes as far as the seas off Brazil--to obtain food for their nestlings, often carrying  2-5 pounds of ingested food for a period of eight days while covering up to 5000 miles.  This would never be possible without extremely energy-efficient flight.

Fur seals get their name because of their very dense coat, which made them ideal targets for commercial exploitation in the 19th century.  But fortunately the days of whaling and sealing are behind us, and South Georgia is a pristine wilderness for all wildlife and fortunate travelers, like me,  to enjoy.    When our zodiacs landed and ten humans dressed in bright yellow jackets popped out on to land, the frisky fur pups, with globe-like eyes, bluff-charged us, but we were warned to shoo them away because they have a deadly bite.  "Fur pups are a bit like Woody Allen," our expedition leader explained.    "They charge with exuberant confidence, but when you clap your hands to shoo them away,  they back off in a quivering, self-conscious sort of way."   

You already know from previous chapters what made South Georgia really special for me.  It was not just the incredibly beautiful landscape.   It was the hundreds of thousands--maybe even millions--of adult King Penguins and their somewhat ugly but still adorable chicks, who are slowly losing their fur coats in exchange for one made of silky feathers.  I've been home from my trip for almost a month, and I still dream about penguins.  And I swear I still smell their poo.   Since adult penguins have no natural land predators, they are fearless and comically curious.  At our first landing, dozens of them waddled down to greet us at the beach, whacking each other with their stumpy wings, as if to say me first, and pecking at our boots.  The squawking noise from the immense throng was deafening, but still music to our ears.  During our three days exploring different parts of this beautiful place, I felt as though I was able to communicate with the king penguins.  As you will see from my photos, there were many times when a penguin came so close to me that I was able to see the gleam of light in his eye.  

Because the breeding season was over for elephant seals, we only saw the lazy females sleeping and sunning themselves in the grass. Since I've seen plenty of elephant seals on a few beaches in California, these behemoths were not a novelty to me.  Nonetheless, combined with the fur seals, the penguins and the unique birds, this was a jaw-dropping experience.

We were told that currently1500 square miles of South Georgia are covered in ice and permanent snow, but we saw significant evidence of climate change as glaciers were receding.  Because we were in this region during the Antarctic summer months, the temperature was quite tolerable, especially when one is wearing four layers of clothing.  However, except for the times we rode in the zodiacs, which brought on a wind chill, I seldom wore gloves when taking my pictures.

While there are no permanent inhabitants on the island, there are a small number of people operating research stations during the summer months.  There are also a few people, mainly volunteers, who operate the museum and a bookstore at the small outpost called Grytviken, which in the early 1900s was the site of a thriving whaling industry, evidenced by the old ships and decaying equipment left behind.  Grytviken is also the final resting place for Ernest Shackleton, whose grave we visited on February 15th, which ironically was Shackleton's birthday.  How many visitors are able to stand at this famous spot in front of this remarkable man's grave, sip some Irish whiskey, and listen to our expedition historian, Jonathan Shackleton, toast his distant cousin.  Grytviken also has a small but iconic church that was pre-fabricated in Norway and erected by workers at this South Georgia site in 1913.  Despite efforts to preserve the church, as well as remnants of the historical whaling days, harsh winter storms have made renovation and restoration a difficult and expensive enterprise. Purchases and contributions by visitors to the gift shop and museum help in this effort.

South Georgia was a spectacular experience, a hard act to follow, I thought, as we sailed away toward the continent of Antarctica. But our visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was no let-down, as I will describe in Chapter 4. 


Sunday, March 5, 2017


The Albatross

In one day I must have dressed and undressed at least three times, but my wardrobe pretty much stayed the same with long underwear and fleece as the basic theme.  Thankfully, penguins, seals and albatross weren't interested in our clothes, although I wondered what they thought when these strange-looking  dudes wearing bright yellow jackets walked on their turf.   They didn't appear afraid or nervous, but many looked at us curiously and some even pecked at our boots.


How cold was it, you ask?   Surprisingly, the temperature never got much below 30 degrees and maybe warmed up to 40 by mid-day, but no one ever complained since we were dressed in so many warm layers, plus we had relatively little wind on South Georgia.  A few times I used boot warmers when walking in the snow, but  often I didn't wear gloves when taking photos.   

When we landed on Prion Island, known as the breeding and nesting home to many wandering albatross, we were greeted by a group of smaller penguins, called gentoo, and a number of lazy seals, who were more interested in bickering with each other than noticing us.   Our zodiac group lucked out and had Noah Strycker as our helmsman and birding guide.  At age 30 Noah has packed in more birding adventures than most people do in a life time, setting an all time record for being the first person to see more than 6000 species of birds in a single calendar year (2015).   I have included below a five minute YouTube video of Noah's around-the-world one-year birding trip which you will definitely enjoy.   

Although I'm not a birder, I can definitely see the appeal, but I've been told by birding friends that I should stick to riding my bike.  Pam, you don't have the patience for birds and besides you talk too much.  My feelings weren't hurt because I know my patience is limited, and my reputation for talking seems to follow me wherever I go, but here on Prion Island it seemed like a different story.  Searching for birds did not require patience because they were everywhere, and we were all talking at the same time, asking Noah tons of questions about the mating behaviors of the albatross.  "They mate for life," Noah told us.  "The courtship ritual begins when the male spreads his huge wings and dances about trying to get the attention of the female."  I looked over at the female who sat placidly on her nest looking ever so bored and totally unimpressed while this male albatross used all his energy on very weak legs to impress her by madly flapping his wings.  The wandering albatross returns to the same nesting place each year and the female lays only one egg per year, but the first year of life is tough and 80-90% die. 

The wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird,  ranging from eight to twelve feet.  They can glide up to forty miles per hour and because of their wingspan, an albatross can remain in the air for several hours without flapping its wings.  In fact,  these birds spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Scientists have attached GPS devices to some wandering albatross and have tracked them as far north as the coast of Brazil, before returning to Prion Island to feed their young by regurgitating the food collected during their wanderings.  As members of a sea bird family called tubenoses,  the tubes on their bill help remove salt from their system. 

Like so much of our planet's wildlife, these seabirds are in serious danger and vulnerable to what is called long-line fishing.  This is  a commercial technique that is very controversial because, while the long lines are successful in hooking fish (most notably Chilean sea bass), they also hook and drown sea birds that dive for the bait.  Approximately 100,000 albatross die this way each year.  While there is a conservation effort underway within the seafood industry to alter this form of fishing, some countries are slow to change.  Given the vulnerability of these magnificent birds, it was my good fortune to spend time around them, watching them fly,  perform their mating rituals, and photographing them at their very best.

At length did cross an albatross
Through the fog it came
As if it had been a Christian Soul
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it never had eat
and round and round it flew
and ice did split with a thunder-fit;
the helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow
And every day, for food or play, 
Came to the Mariner's hollo!

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1834

The adventure continues .................

P.S.  Watch Noah Strycker's amazing five minute video here.  

Monday, February 27, 2017


Chapter 1

If I told you I went to Antarctica with the Shackleton party,  I think you might doubt me, but it's true.  Six travelers, who are distantly related to one of history's most renowned Antarctic explorers,  Ernest Shackleton, were on board our ship, along with Bruce and me and 190 other travelers.  We were on a two week expedition to South Georgia and Antarctica with a company called Quark, a leader in polar adventures.  

Although February is summer in Antarctica, you wouldn't know it by the four layers of clothes we wore to protect us from the wind and cold.  Our trip began in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, where we embarked on our expedition ship called the Ocean Endeavor.  

For three days we cruised east from Ushuaia on a relatively calm sea, and listened to scientists and experts lecture on the polar environment:  the birds, (especially penguins), the whales (Humpback and Orcas),  species of seals (fur, leopard, weddell),  and the many glaciers we were about to see.  Jonathan Shackleton told us inspiring stories about his cousin's famous adventures in the early 1900s, which are classic tales of leadership and heroism.   We heard from a biologist what it was like to spend a year at a scientific research station studying the sex lives of elephant seals.  In between lectures and outstanding meals prepared by an award-winning chef, we were out on the decks and up on the bridge with binoculars and cameras, scanning the skies hoping to photograph albatross (instead of cormorants), and looking out to sea where one might spot a pod of dolphins or a group of whales lunching on krill.

Finally we arrived in South Georgia, a crescent-shaped mountainous island with no permanent inhabitants, only penguins, birds, and seals.  The island measures approximately 100 miles long and 24 miles wide, with half of its surface capped in ice, 12 mountains rising about 6,000 feet, and roughly 160 glaciers, many of which come down to the sea.  

Preparing for a zodiac landing took a good bit of time as members of the ship's staff carefully examined our backpacks and each item of outer clothing that we might wear  --  hats, head bands, scarves, balaclavas (protective face masks), and multiple layers of gloves.  They looked for specks of dirt, tiny seeds, remnants of food or anything foreign that might possibly introduce non-native materials to the pristine environment we were about to visit.  And if there was any doubt,  our packs and the crevices of our outer clothing where microscopic pieces of lint or strands of hair might be found were thoroughly vacuumed.  Then after putting on a heavy yellow waterproof parka and pants, our knee-high rubber boots, and a bulky life jacket, we stepped in and out of a chemically-treated water bath to sanitize our boots and to prepare us to step on to what many have described as another planet.

Sliding my legs over the side of a rocking zodiac in my bulky outfit and clumsily taking a few steps into the clear blue water and on to the rocky shore was not easy, but guides were there to help us and direct us to a place where we could leave our heavy life jackets and backpacks so we weren't so loaded down.  I carried only one camera -- my new mirrorless Sony A7R II with a 24-240mm lens.   This all-purpose lens worked best for me, giving me a wide-angle perspective and close up shots, which were relatively easy given that most of the penguins and seals were pretty close, some times no more than a few feet away.   Also changing lenses in temperatures just a few degrees above freezing didn't seem like a good idea.

During our lengthy landings on Salisbury Plain and Andrews Bay,  I was filled with so much emotion that it's really hard to explain.   Many words of awe come to mind.  Simply stated -- I was overwhelmed.  My eyes filled with tears as these strong but delicate looking penguins  greeted me on the beach, flapping their wings and bobbing their heads, each making their own individual call.    What struck me most was the privilege I had to step on this incredibly beautiful land in a very unique remote place, devoid of human life (except for an occasional tourist like me), but teeming with animals:  fur seals,  elephant seals, and the world's largest colonies of king penguins in various stages of preening, egg laying, nesting, and molting.  We were told that there were as many as 250,000 pairs, give or take a few thousand or so.   And it's true what they say about penguin poo.  It's really stinky, but by the end of our trip,  I loved that fishy smell.  

"Walk to the right of the red flags," our guide said,  pointing up ahead towards the penguin rookery.   "Remember to try and keep 15 feet between you and the penguins."   Fifteen feet, I questioned?     Yes, don't walk closer than fifteen feet, but if they approach you, that's a different story.  The penguins were close and all around us.

As I walked closer to the rookery, before me was a sea filled with king penguins.  An awe-struck adjective:  Breathtaking!    While individual penguins could be seen in the mass, the overall impression was abstract, like a painting of silver, black and white penguins nestled together, caring for the egg or feeding the chick.  Another adjective:  Deafening!  (The cacophony is best heard, so please watch the YouTube video I posted below).   My senses were in overdrive, as was my camera.   I struggled to make sure I had the right settings, like aperture and shutter speed, since I'd never taken photographs of wildlife before and things change quickly.  Up close and personal the king penguins did their special dance, squawking,  rocking, and waddling so close to me that I could have stroked their smooth-looking feathers, touched their bright but sharp beaks, conveyed my emotions silently and expressed my feelings.  I was experiencing the magic of nature -- seeing them, smelling them, and wanting to touch them,  communicate with them, call to them, but they paid no attention to me.  They had their own thing going, making strange squawking sounds, shaking their heads, slapping each other with their strong wings as if to say hey you, go away.  I was here first.  The males vied for the female's attention while a stranger like me made my own weird sounds.   I pressed the camera's continuous shutter -- click, click, click.  Then I remembered what our expedition leader told us the night before.                 

                               Watch.  Listen.  Absorb.  

I put down my camera, sat on a small wobbly rock and got goosebumps as I watched, listened and absorbed.    

The adventure continues............ 

                               Cacophony of king penguins 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Taking Uber is definitely the newest and best way to get around when you need to get from point A to point B and don't want to drive your car.  We use Uber to take us to and from the airport, which happens often.  Before Uber we either relied on the understandably infrequent generosity of friends to drive us, or we reserved a multi-passenger commercial shuttle van that picked us up three to four hours before our flight, which most of the time required that we get up at some god-awful hour in the middle of the night.  Then, depending on how many other people were also taking that same van, we either twiddled our thumbs arriving too early at the airport or we became very anxious because a confused driver started going south to San Jose International instead of north to SFO.   That awful I-might-miss-my-plane feeling is what makes my blood pressure rise, so until Uber came along, we reserved a luxury Town Car from a limousine service, which ensured a reasonable pick-up time, plus a comfortable drive on cushy leather seats while listening to soothing classical music on the way to the airport.  We didn't have to scramble for a good seat in a multi-passenger van, but most of all we didn't have to listen to mindless chatter or whining kids.   But even though we were really comfortable and relaxed, that fancy-ass limousine cost us nearly a hundred bucks one way!  

Although I was a bit nervous the first time I clicked the Uber icon on my mobile phone,  the service has been very reliable, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, and in the DC area where I often need transportation to the airport.  I should comment, however, that we have never used Uber when traveling outside of the United States and probably wouldn't try it,  unless we were in a country where English is the first language.

Fortunately we've had good drivers with clean cars that seem to run fine.  We've never felt unsafe, nor have we had an experience where Uber didn't show up on time.  After I click on the Uber icon, the location service on my device notes my pick up location, and very quickly I receive a reply from a driver who is usually close by.  I text him or her back to confirm exactly where we are waiting; this is important at the airport, where our location can be confusing.  

Recently a long flight from Washington, DC, which was delayed 4-hours, meant landing at SFO in the pouring rain at 2:30 in the morning.   After we got our checked luggage, I clicked on the Uber app and plugged in where we wanted to go.   Then we went outside the terminal  and stood on the sidewalk waiting with a dozen other fliers who too were staring intently at their brightly lit device screens waiting for confirmations from their drivers.  

Ding Ding !!!!   Henry in a black Toyota Camry will be arriving in 5 minutes, I read on my small screen.  Other people began eyeing license plate numbers as a long line of cars slowly cruised by.  Our Henry pulled up promptly in a fairly new car and helped us load our luggage in the trunk.   Once we settled comfortably in the back seat, Henry began chatting us up and asking polite questions about our recent trip. "Where you guys coming back from at this hour?" he said in a jolly booming voice.  "Was this business or pleasure?"  "Pleasure," we struggled to answer in a coherent way, since our internal clocks told us it was really 5:30 in the morning, and we badly need sleep after having been awake for nearly 24 hours.   Despite our apparent exhaustion,  Henry continued to tell stories and ask more questions, and before long we are pulling into our home driveway and feeling very wide awake.

Talking to strangers is not a problem for me--to the contrary, as most of you know--but even Bruce, who is generally pretty quiet, engaged in a conversation with Henry because he was so nice and had interesting stories to tell.  He drives for Uber more for fun than money, although it does help pay his daughter's tuition in private school.  He starts driving at 2:00 a.m. at the end of his night shift as a public transit mechanic,  and he stays behind the wheel for two or three hours before going home and getting some sleep.   "Driving helps relax me from a physically demanding job," he said,  "I'm an outgoing person, and this way I get to talk to some pretty interesting people who otherwise I would never meet.  And besides the freeways are generally quiet at this hour too, which is another reason why driving helps calm me down."  He went on to say, "Some people go home, fix a cocktail and watch TV, but that's not me.   I get in my car,  turn on my Uber driver app, and start talking."  

Henry was not the first Uber driver we met who was doing this gig as a second job.  In fact, we've met only one person who drives for Uber full time.  A young fellow who works at my beauty salon and is just getting his hair cutting business underway also drives for Uber.   He says it's not a high paying job, but the extra income in his off hours helps meet expenses while he builds up his clientele.  We had a female Uber driver just one time, but we've had drivers from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and Texas.   We always enjoy talking to drivers who come from countries we have visited, like Morocco and Ethiopia.  Strangely enough Henry was our first Native Son of the Golden West! which means born and bred in California.

What prompts this post about Uber is because I want to share a funny story written and posted on Facebook by my very good friend. 

He is a 30-something entrepreneur, a  PhD, who has founded a couple of  successful startup companies here in Silicon Valley and is currently a CEO of a brand new startup that already employs twelve people.   He hails from the United Kingdom, and is the only individual I know personally who drives for Uber.   I found his recent Facebook story so amusing that I asked him if I could share this with you on my Biker Chick Gone Crazy site.  He didn't have a problem with my sharing it, but asked if I would keep him anonymous so that none of his friends or employees would find out, even though he did post it on Facebook.  So, I will honor his request.  Here's a very funny Uber story written by my friend whom I will call Bob.  

I've been moonlighting as an Uber driver for about six months now.  Whenever I have to drive to San Francisco or to Silicon Valley, I turn on the app and use the destination filter to pick people up along the way.  I normally hate driving, but I'm now a little addicted to picking people up on Uber.

After tax, car maintenance and gas, the money is probably around the minimum wage, so I'm not doing it for the money.  But I'm an extrovert and love meeting new people.  I am someone who has hitchhiked a lot around the world, and I normally pick up hitchhikers whenever I can.  I love the interesting conversations I have with the people I meet.

Last night, I attended a fancy dinner on UK biotech policy hosted by the British MP Lord Prior, for the JP Morgan Healthcare conference (happening next week in San Francisco).  After the dinner ended, I waited a few minutes before I turned on the Uber driver app to make sure I didn't pick up someone I'd just had dinner with.

Off I went.  "Tonight I'm a real chauffeur," I thought as I'm actually wearing a suit and tie!  After picking up four party goers and dropping them off at a wedding reception, I picked up another three people.  Two of them had British voices, but I could not see them.  The people were deep in discussion so I didn't say much.  As one of them continued to talk, I thought to myself, "I know that voice!" and I looked again in the mirror and realized it was a Palo Alto venture capitalist that I know.  I suddenly didn't know what to do.  Did I say hello or shut up?  I decided that this was too funny to keep quiet so during a pause in the conversation, I said, "I don't know if I should speak up or keep quiet but we know each other," and she replied, "Hi Bob, you know I thought I recognized your voice when I got in."  It turns out she was with two other colleagues going to the same conference.  She introduced us and we exchanged cards (I keep a stash in my glovebox and go through a lot).  It turns out that one of the other passengers was also having dinner with Lord Prior on Monday, and he promised to pass on my regards (!).  As we parted, he commented that I embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area.  I said "this isn't normal actually," and he replied "Are you kidding, this is the Bay Area, it's totally normal."  

So, if you have considered using Uber to get from point A to point B, I encourage you to try it since it works really well.  All you do is download the free Uber app on your mobile device and put in a credit card number so that no money is exchanged at the point of service.  And who knows one day if you are riding with Uber somewhere here in the Bay Area you might be in the back seat of a car driven by my good friend Bob, the PhD, CEO, entrepreneur turned Uber driver or Henry the public transit mechanic.  Either way you will experience excellent service and be highly entertained. 

Friday, December 16, 2016


When I was a little girl, a fish monger working behind the counter at our local A&P handed me a gray blob on a sheet of waxed paper and dared me to eat the slimy thing raw, and I did.  It was no big deal and I've enjoyed oysters on the half shell ever since.   Last month when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico for a photography workshop around a celebration called the Day of the Dead, my friends goaded me into eating dried grasshoppers and ant larvae, and I did.   I must admit that the crunchy bugs didn't slide down my throat quite as easily as the raw oyster, but to creep out my friends I told them that my throat was feeling scratchy because the grasshoppers were trying to crawl back out.   Eating a raw oyster or dead grasshoppers was no big deal.   But what is a really big deal is the annual celebration in Oaxaca called Dia de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead.  During this three day celebration  (10/31-11/2),  Mexican families gather to celebrate the life of dearly departed family members and relatives whom they miss dearly.  Maybe these individuals died generations ago or perhaps as recently as within the last year, but to the people left behind, it doesn't really matter when their family members died.  What's important is how much they are still revered,  always remembered, and forever loved.



The first time I heard about Dia de Los Muertos was around Halloween time when my stepdaughter Nikki made herself up to look like Frida Kahlo and went to a celebration of life at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA.   Back then I assumed that Dia de Los Muertos was the Mexican equivalent of our Halloween, but I had that completely wrong.  Dia de Los Muertos is not Halloween at all.  The Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition that is genuinely observed, celebrated and preserved.  It is a festival of life, an opportunity to remember the dearly departed and loved ones in life.  It is also a chance for people to get in touch with deeply rooted traditions that are devoted to the cycle of life.  At the heart of this sacred time are beautifully crafted altars and shrines that pay tribute.  It is a time to bring faith, family and history together and value this ancient custom.  


When I visited Oaxaca a few months ago, I was part of a six-person photography workshop organized by Master Photographer David Coleman of Redwood City, California.  David, who grew up in Mexico City, is not only fluent in Spanish but is also very comfortable in the Oaxacan culture.  In addition to teaching us great street photography skills,  he made our experience very special and personal because he knew how to best relate to the Oaxacan people,. This made our taking photographs of the locals extremely comfortable.  He also introduced us to some amazing food!

  Dia de Los Muertos is not a mournful commemoration, but instead a happy and colorful celebration, where death is not frightening or strange.  It is considered part of life.  During the day there are parades in the streets with multiple marching bands, and groups of families pushing baby carriages and little tykes riding high on their fathers' shoulders.   Many people paint their faces in ghoulish designs and wear brightly colored costumes.   At night most of the cemeteries around the city are alive with music and laughter.  The graves are surrounded by aromatic marigolds and incense, which is offered in abundance in a candle lit setting, where souls are illuminated from the shadows of death.  These handsomely decorated altars are a way to pay tribute to loved ones with photographs, mementos, fruit, cookies, and jugs of mescal, the local alcoholic drink made from the agave plant.   

On the first night we visited the Panteon General San Miguel, which is a traditional-looking cemetery with hundreds of engraved marble tombstones of different sizes spaced closely together in a haphazard way.  The cemetery is surrounded by a large wall, which serves as a columbarium with small candles exposing the names and dates of dearly departed.   


Because Dia de Los Muertos is heaven (pardon the pun) for photographers, there were many of us at the cemetery on our first night, but fortunately we didn't get in each other's way.  I wandered around by myself for a while hoping to find the perfect photo op but truth be told I was also making sure not to get lost.  Eventually I teamed up with Ed, a fellow photographer, and David and that's when things began to get interesting.  Someone who dressed exotically and identified herself as the Black Widow appeared and seemed anxious to be photographed.    Because of her relevant dress and enticing manner, we initially took the Black Widow to be a woman, but over time we began to think that maybe the Black widow was a man.  Either way she/he seemed to enjoy the attention  and surprisingly she didn't ask for any money.  A rather large crowd gathered around her, mostly to gawk as she paraded around and struck a variety of different poses, but only a few of us were actually taking pictures.  I was so enthralled by this magnificent opportunity that I failed to check the settings on my camera so despite at least fifty or sixty clicks, all I got was pretty much a bunch of  blurs.  Of course, I didn't know this until the next day when I downloaded the images on my computer,  but by then I was out of luck.  The Black Widow image below was taken by Master Photographer and my coach David Coleman.  So, readers, I'm curious.  What is your take from looking at the picture?   Man?  Woman?  

My favorite cemetery for night time photography was Panteon de San Felipe, which we visited around 9 p.m. on our last night and took pictures until midnight.  Walking into the cemetery lit almost entirely by thousands of candles took my breath away, and rather than the stark marble tombstones we had seen the night before, the San Felipe graves were pretty simple,  and in some cases just a mound of dirt adorned with a small wooden cross.  But what set San Felipe apart from Panteon General San Miguel was the imaginative and creative ways the family plots were decorated.  Almost all were bordered by tall tapered white candles, and the graves were either covered or outlined with beautiful marigolds with their vibrant color and pungent scent.  I read that the Mexicans believe that these special marigolds will help guide the spirits to their alters.   


Reader, you may find this hard to believe from the expressions you see on some of these faces in the photographs, but we were, for the most part, welcomed warmly into people's personal space,  as if we were members of their family.  Women tending the graves of their late husbands or mothers looking at photos of their late children beckoned us to come closer, to pay tribute and take as many pictures as we wanted.  Clever David Coleman brought a newly-released Polaroid-like camera, which enabled him to take photographs and share a hard copy on the spot with family members as a memento of this celebration.  What a genius idea.   As his students we benefited from this act of kindness and not only were we permitted to take more photographs, we were also treated to home-made cookies, fruit breads, and other delicious pastries, and in a few cases some people even poured us small tastes of mescal, a home brew that gave us a glow all our own.  




Oaxaca, Mexico is a special place, not only for Dia de Los Muertos but for other holidays as well.  This artistic city is blessed with a flair for the creative:  famous for their black pottery, beautifully woven fabrics, and colorful painted wood carvings of animals, all works of art that are valued and collected around the world.  And then there is the food, which is not what we consider Mexican here at home.  Because of the unique ingredients (in addition to grasshoppers and ant larvae) used to make Oaxacan food, it should be considered gourmet, whereas in the United States what we call Mexican food is really Tex-Mex.



Hopefully, next year I will return to Oaxaca to observe and photograph one of the strangest celebrations of all called, the Night of the Radishes.  On December 23rd people from all over the valley bring to the zocolo (town center) their largest homegrown radishes which have been lovingly carved into sculptures representing almost anything and a little bit of everything.  Oaxaca is also known for its flavorful chocolate and its rich ice cream,  two of my favorites foods.    I'd even return for another taste of the crunchy grasshoppers.  The ant larvae I'm not so sure.



The adventure continues ........................