Sunday, July 17, 2016

THE CONFESSIONS OF A CHOCOHOLIC

I confess I'm addicted to certain foods and one of them is chocolate.   I've called myself a binge eater for years, but primarily with foods that have sugar or salt.   

By binging I mean give me a potato chip, and I'll eat the entire bag.   One handful of nuts and one hour later the can is empty.  And, of course, there's chocolate. One square becomes two, then turns into three or four until the entire bar or package has been consumed.  Bruce hides his Milka bar because he knows I will eat all of it.   Chocolate chip cookies?  When my friend Jane brings her freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies on a bike ride, I manage to eat more than my share and hope no one else notices.  Her cookies are especially addictive because when they are warm, straight out of the oven, she sprinkles them lightly with salt. The best way to manage my binging problem is to keep half-opened food packages, like chocolate bars, chips and cookies, out of sight because for me there is no such thing as just one.

With this personal factoid in mind,  you can imagine how serendipidous it must be to have a good friend who owns a chocolate factory! Yes, really--and not just a Willy Wonka version, but a major worldwide supplier. Last week I finally made it to Germany to visit our good friend, Claus, and his family, and most happily, the amazing chocolate factory. 

The company, Rubezahl Schokoladen, was founded in 1949 by Joseph Cersovsky, the grandfather of Claus, who is now the company's CEO and the King of Chocolate.  The company, which has several plants in Germany, is headquartered near Stuttgart, and is still a family business, but a mighty big one, with more than 800 employees. We were excited to be able to don our sanitary coats and hats and tour the factory, from raw material to finished products ready for the retail shelves.  


PAM AND BRUCE WITH FRAU QUALITY CONTROL


Rubezahl makes several different chocolate products and until recently was best known for making seasonal products, like chocolate Santa Clauses,  Easter bunnies and advent calendars. In fact, in 2014 they sold 30 million advent calendars that year.  As the company grew, so did their product line, and now they make a variety of products using about 40,000 tons of chocolate each year, and exporting to over 50 countries worldwide.  One seasonal product that I think is unique is the chocolate advent calendar, but my sweet tooth ranked their Sun Rice crunchy as number one.

Chocolate consists of the basic ingredients: cacao mass, cacao butter, sugar and milk powder.  The milk powder comes in enormous bags weighing 750 kilos (2.2 pounds per kilogram) or 1,650 pounds, as much as the weight of one cow. 


THE KING OF CHOCOLATE POSING WITH  BAGS OF MILK POWDER


First the ingredients are weighed, and the milk powder is mixed in with the cacao mass, butter and sugar and ground together by big rollers and kneaded by a huge food processor.  The chocolate is stirred in a vessel that resembles a conch shell and is, therefore, conched for multiple hours at a very high temperature, and then stored in huge tanks.  Conching is considered to be a very important step in producing chocolate's complex flavor and smooth texture.


CHOCOLATE SLURRY DESTINED FOR GREAT THINGS


It was fascinating to watch the production of Sun Rice squares. This addictive little treat is a chocolate square filled with crunchy little morsels. Cereals, puffed rice and rice crackers are mixed and blended with the cacao creme.  The Sun Rice mass goes through big rollers until it is smooth and compressed to the right thickness.  



SUN RICE READY TO BE CUT INTO SQUARES


As the Sun Rice filling blend moves along the conveyer belt, grooves are pressed into the bottom of the dough, resulting in long Sun Rice strips, which eventually get cross-cut into squares.  When the morsels are almost done, it needs a chocolate coating, which happens when the morsels are pulled apart.  The Sun Rice morsel moves onto a grid through a curtain of whole milk chocolate which coats the pieces perfectly.  Afterwards the squares go through a cooling tunnel for about five minutes, which makes the chocolate solid.  



WOULDN'T YOU LOVE ONE RIGHT NOW?

I WANT ONE, TWO, THREE!




Finally, a robotic picker system recognizes each individual morsel and the robotic arms put the pieces into small compartmentalized thin plastic trays.

(See Youtube Videos at the end to watch the robotic arms at work)



Now the trays are wrapped with foil and packed into cardboard boxes ready for shipment.






Rubezahl is one of the largest buyers of UTZ certified cacao, the largest program for sustainable farming of coffee and cacoa in the world.   They buy different brands of cacoa from West Africa, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, and Madagascar.  

When we left Germany, the King of Chocolate made sure we brought home an ample supply of every product that Rubezahl produces.  Our refrigerator, the best place to store chocolate until it is ready to be eaten,  is full.  Rest assured.   I have made a pact with myself to only open the chocolate when I want to share with friends.   CHOCOHOLICS BEWARE.   



CHOCOLATE SANTA AND HIS HELPERS

YouTube -- chocolates on a roll

YOUTUBE -- WATCH THE ROBOTS WORK





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Thursday, June 16, 2016

THE MAN I LOVE

His paychecks stopped long ago, but he still keeps an office, which I call his man cave.   The cramped room is filled with heavy, dark wood furniture he has had for years, back when he got a paycheck.  Loose papers cover his desk and legal-size manilla folders are stacked on the credenza behind him where he also keeps his printer, a copier machine, and an ancient IBM Selectric typewriter which he uses to type addresses on envelopes.  There are yellow post-it notes stuck to his computer that remind him of deadlines and other tasks to do.  The framed certificates on the wall bring back memories of a time when he had billable hours.  His office is lit by fluorescent ceiling bulbs and an old floor lamp with a shade that is slightly singed around the edges.  They don't make phones like the one he has anymore.  It isn't even retro like a Princess.  His desk faces the door so that the wires and cables from his computer are visible to people who happen to drop by.  These are occasional visitors, like me or sometimes other tenants from the building.  He says he's relieved that outside people don't visit; otherwise he would have to dust and use a vacuum cleaner, which he would bring from home.

He has a collection of empty Amazon boxes he saves for mailing presents to his kids who live in other cities.  The sagging bookcases, there are two of them, hold heavy textbooks containing out-of-date information that he used when he practiced tax law and got a paycheck, which he called bringing home the bacon.  He doesn't say that anymore -- only that he's semi-retired because a retired person must be boring since they are not doing interesting stuff that most working people want to talk about.

Although it takes a while, he eventually opens every piece of mail, including advertisements from carpet cleaners announcing a special deal, even though we have hardwood floors at our house.  Occasionally there is a check inside one of those envelopes, which he calls found money because it's not a paycheck.  He has no billable hours, but he's semi-retired.  This is the man I married. The man I love and adore.  

                              Happy Birthday, Bruce! 




Saturday, May 28, 2016

IRELAND: THE PEOPLE, THE LANDSCAPE, AND DRIVING ON THE LEFT



OUR FIRST GLIMPSE OF IRELAND


In his Ireland guidebook Rick Steves writes, If you really want to know the Irish, just ask for directions.  In her Biker Chick Gone Crazy blog Pam Perkins writes,  If you really want to know the Irish, hail a taxi.  And that's exactly what we did after exiting the Dublin airport to join our friends Lynne and Fred for a two week driving trip around Ireland beginning in Dublin and concluding in Belfast. 

"Take us to the Croke Park Hotel," we asked the cab driver who was first in line to take a fare, and he whisked us away, talking continuously about places we must go and things we should see during our two days in Dublin, like Trinity College to see the Book of Kells.   "Drink a pint or two at the Brazen Head Pub," he said,  "because this is the oldest pub in Dublin.  You'll hear great stories told through music, and maybe you'll meet a faerie folk or two."  







THE LIBRARY AT TRINITY COLLEGE


Even though we used the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus for transportation throughout Dublin, we took cabs as well.  Every cabbie, without exception,  took great personal interest in us, asking why we were in Ireland, and what we planned to do.  The cabbie who drove us to pick up our rental car told us about great places to eat along our driving route, but he endeared himself to us when he sang a song (with multiple verses) about a nostalgic time in 1962, and then gave us each a bear hug when we said goodbye.   Knowing the congeniality of the Irish, I bet if we'd stuck around another day, he would have invited us home for supper.  We were clutching our sides laughing when another cabbie bragged about his upcoming trip to Vegas while his wife travels to Hungary for a breast reduction procedure.  


ONE OF OUR CABBIES


In addition to cabs and busses, we walked many miles combing the city streets, seeing the sights and looking for unique places to eat and cozy pubs for drinking and listening to live traditional music.  Our favorite pub turned out to be the popular Brazen Head because the music was very authentic, but we also enjoyed lunches at The Bank and the Lion's Head Pub.  We also checked out the night life in the Temple Bar area (a bit like Bourbon Street in New Orleans), listening to music, drinking Guinness and Bruce's favorite, Franciscan Rebel Red.  I even met a faerie.


LUNCH AT THE BANK IN DUBLIN




THE BRAZEN HEAD, THE OLDEST PUB IN DUBLIN


ONE FAERIE FOLK


How many Californians does it take to drive in Ireland?

The answer is four --Fred and Bruce in the front seat navigating and driving on the wrong side of the road (i.e. the left with the steering wheel on the right), and Lynne and Pam squeezed together in the back seat yelling  "Waaaatch out, you are toooooo close to the edge," or "Oh, my God, you almost hit that car."  Fred and Bruce got the hang of driving on the left fairly quickly, but we sucked a lot of air when meeting oncoming cars, trucks and buses hugging the center line of a narrow road.  Actually, we were hit twice when one crazy guy passed us going downhill on a narrow curvy road, and another time a young woman rear-ended us when we slowed down to follow a cyclist riding in the road.  We stopped both times but fortunately for all concerned, there was no damage to any of the cars. It seems our GPS lady found driving in Ireland a challenge too, but that didn't have anything to do with driving on the left.   Although we always plugged in the right information, she often had us going in the opposite direction or driving around in circles.  Often we'd shut her up, and use road signs, which weren't always helpful either, and our map didn't show the detail of the smaller roads, only the major highways.  

On Day One out of Dublin, we pulled into the small town of Kilkenny about 5 pm, but we didn't find our hotel (The Pembroke) until way past 6.   The GPS lady seemed to be in another country or on vacation so she made matters worse, but the sign for the Pembroke was also very small, making it almost impossible to notice.  In fact, we passed the hotel several times before we finally saw the sign, and that's only because the guys gave in to Lynne's and my pleading to ask someone for directions.  As it turned out that person happened to be an American who was trying to get his car out of a locked parking lot.  Fortunately,  a local fellow heard us and directed us to the hotel. 




THE COLORFUL BUILDINGS IN KINSALE


If you love castles, then Ireland should be on your bucket list because every city, town, and village seems to have a castle or at least a ruin that might qualify as a castle, like the Rock of Cashel.   Other famous castles are the Bunratty, Blarney, Dunguaire, Cahir,  Ross,  Dunluce, etc.   My favorite was the Rock of Cashel, which is not a castle per se, but it is definitely one of Ireland's most historic sights.  I especially loved photographing the cemetery there.  In fact I took pictures at many cemeteries during our trip.   What is it about cemeteries that speak to me visually?



THE ROCK OF CASHEL LOCATED IN THE COUNTY TIPPERARY

CEMETERY AT CASHEL


INSIDE ROCK OF CASHEL



THE BLARNEY CASTLE BUT WE DID NOT KISS THE STONE

OLD  CEMETERY AT GLENDALOUGH


CAHIR CASTLE, BUILT IN 1142


Although many kids in my hometown came from Irish descent, I really didn't know much about Ireland until I met my close friend, Helen Cassidy Page, whose mom and dad were born there.  In my youth no one seemed interested in their heritage, myself included.    After several trips with members from her family,  Helen published a beautiful historical novel entitled The Equal of God about Irish life in the 1800s before and during the potato famine.  (Click on title to find her book on Amazon).   Her evocative novel helped me appreciate Ireland's history in the context of my own trip, so when I stopped in Charlestown, the village where her father was born, I felt goosebumps, especially when I learned from a resident on the street that the Cassidy's lived just around the corner.

Wow!  Everything is so green.

In addition to the many kindnesses of the Irish people, what makes Ireland so special are the varied and beautiful landscapes.  My courses in landscape photography were not a waste of time.  I returned home with 1800 photos on my SD card, which are taking a long time to sort through.  I had many favorites viewpoints, but the Gap of Dunloe, where we took a horse and buggy ride with charming Kevin, had to be one of the most beautiful. Walking along the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is also high on the list.   I loved the historic monastic settlement of Glendalough, and the scenic Wicklow Mountains, where we photographed a wild mountain goat staring at us from the the peat bog on Military Road just over Sally Gap. 



THE WILD GOAT ON MILITARY ROAD AT SALLY GAP





A HORSE AND BUGGY RIDE UP THE GAP OF DUNLOE

GAP OF DUNLOE

The prolific yellow bush called furze in Ireland but Scotch broom here at home, bloomed prolifically and the predominance of the bright yellow weed made for a stunning contrast to the green hills, the blue water, and the often white puffy clouds.  Yes, white puffy clouds because the weather in general was pretty nice, some cloudy but dry days and even days with sun. While the iconic Ring of Kerry was a lovely drive, we enjoyed the Dingle Peninsula more, most likely because the day was sunny.  We saw a gazillion sheep grazing on the verdant hillsides or free range along the road.  It is the color of paint on the fleece of the sheep that distinguishes one owner from another.   As a dog person, my thrill was watching well-trained border collies herd sheep scattered all over the hillside into a tight pack and drive them quickly into a pen below us.  The farmer told us that sheep respond to the dogs as if they were wolves, a basic instinct in sheep that forces them to pack together for protection.  There is something about watching dogs do what they were bred for that brings tears to my eyes.   Visiting a sheep farm was a touristy thing to do, as evidenced by the number of big tour buses parked at the farm we visited.  We were packed together with a hundred or more tourists who rode in those behemoths, but it didn't matter.  We still enjoyed the event. 

Beautiful Irish scenery








We were looking forward to exploring an unusual geological area called The Burren, but that's when our rental car, a Renault SUV, broke down.  Fortunately, we had arrived early at our B&B and unloaded our luggage before setting out on a drive in the boonies, where no one lives and there's no cell phone coverage either.  I'll leave out the details except to say that the car's gearbox died, and the only functioning gear was first and that didn't get us far very fast.  When we finally made it back to the B&B, a charming place called Fergus View, the owners, Mary and her husband Declan, helped us deal with the bureaucracies of a rental agency, and after much pleading, we found a new rental car in the driveway of our B&B when we awoke the next morning.   Just as they promised, the new car was delivered from Dublin in the middle of the night on a flat bed truck, but honestly, after all the different people we had to talk to, we had our doubts it would happen.  



LABRADOR RETRIEVERS PLAYING AT THE BURREN


Another favorite place was the lively town of Galway, probably because it was artsy and had youthful energy. The highlight was coming upon the Galway Street Band with its thirteen animated young members playing lively music on a variety of instruments, including a washboard, several guitars, a banjo, saxophone, accordion, trumpet, ukulele, and a box drum, also known as a cajon.  Their music wasn't really Irish, but rather a combination of jazz, rock, some blue grass, and maybe a little world music tossed in here and there. Whatever you call it, we loved it--as did the enthusiastic crowd that filled the pedestrian-only intersection.  



THE GALWAY STREET BAND

An amazing thing happened in downtown Galway when looking for a place to park.   Bruce saw a space and quickly paralleled parked into it, but then we all noticed that the curb was painted yellow. Surely this meant something, but we weren't quite sure what.  A man in one of the stores said that this was not a parking place, but at that exact moment, a woman, officially-dressed in a pressed white shirt and black pants, marched up to us with paper in hand as though she was planning  to write us a ticket.  Bruce quickly told her, the traffic warden, we were moving the car, but she surprised us and said it was O.K. to park there.  "Do you have one Euro 90?" she asked Bruce, and it just so happened that he had the exact change, which he handed to her.  She took the money and disappeared around the corner, while we waited wondering what was going on.  When she returned, she handed Bruce a paper receipt and said, "Put this on your dashboard, and stay as long as you want.  Just enjoy our town, and have a good time."  Yes, amazing!  She even let me photograph her with Bruce, but after the photo,  she began writing tickets on the other cars parked next to ours.  






Contrary to what some people told me, Ireland has really delicious food.  I couldn't resist the thick slices of home-made soda bread smeared with soft Irish butter, and the warm scones with a touch of berry jam and a dollop of whipped cream went perfectly with my afternoon cup of tea.  Since returning home, I've had to change my eating habits.  There's no soda bread with Irish butter, and I gave up drinking a pint of Guinness daily. 


THICK SLICES OF SODA BREAD AND IRISH BUTTER


TOUGH CHOICES TO MAKE 


Stay tuned. The adventure continues in Norway next month.  










Tuesday, April 5, 2016

FEAR AND LEARNING IN YOSEMITE VALLEY

I am recovering from a nightmare that turned into what might be called a transformative experience all within a six hour time frame while I was in Yosemite Valley last weekend participating in a landscape photography workshop.





YOSEMITE FALLS


My five companions were strangers with whom I shared one thing in common:  becoming a better photographer. That is why we signed up for a course in a place that many call one of nature's most beautiful creations.



BRIDALVEIL FALLS


I went to Yosemite with considerable trepidation, concerned that I would not keep up if I didn't understand new concepts.  Now that I'm getting older,  I often need to hear complex instructions more than once, making me fear I might not measure up.  Who wants to look or feel stupid.  It's easy to compare myself with other people I envy because they are so skilled and talented as photographers. This is not jealousy.  Rather I consider it a type of admiration and a desire for me to grow personally, so that some day I might be able to put my name on the same quality of images they do.    The people I'm talking about are not famous photographers like Sally Mann or Ansel Adams.  They are people like you and me, but they are very good at what they do.   Some friends tell me they like my pictures and encourage me to publish a book, but rather than accepting their comments as compliments, I see them as good friends who just want to be nice.




REFLECTIONS OF YOSEMITE




The instructions for the photography course stressed competence in using one's equipment, which rattled me because I had never used a tripod or a cable release and didn't understand certain terms.  For example, what is a mirror lock-up?    I spent an hour one day practicing to open and close the new tripod,  so that I could do it under two minutes.  No one wants to wait around while I fumble, and I didn't want to embarrass myself.  Don't laugh, but I even struggle to open and close hiking poles, which function similarly to the legs of a tripod.  The first cable release I ordered was overly complicated, so at least I had the sense to exchange it for a simple one, but the second one I ordered never arrived.  UPS said it was lost in the mail. 

The workshop weekend was fast approaching -- too fast, in fact, as the course started a few days after I returned from a ten-day trip with the family.  Despite all my years of frequent travel,  I have never unpacked from one trip while packing for another.  Reader, please understand I am not complaining.  I want to paint a realistic picture of what was going on in my head as I prepared for this adventure that would use a new part of my brain as I learned new skills.  At least that was one of my key objectives.

Day One

After a five-hour drive we arrived in Yosemite late in the afternoon, and began taking pictures at one of the park's many iconic sights called Valley View.  We hoped to catch the last rays of sun shining on the cascading waters of Bridalveil Falls.  Although I tend to shoot mainly in the aperture priority setting, the goals for this afternoon were to shoot only in shutter priority setting, to examine the histogram of each photo, and not to worry if the image was overexposed.  Our instructor, David, moved easily among us, chatting about how to set up, checking our shutter speeds, and showing us how to evaluate histograms.   I took about 45-50 images, but after the sun faded,  we packed up our gear and drove 30 minutes back to our motel, which was located outside of the national park. 


BRIDALVEIL FALLS FROM VALLEY VIEW



 Day Two  

At 7 a.m. we returned to the valley to capture the early morning light that showcases Yosemite Falls, which was at its peak given this year's excellent snowpack.  I had a little pit in my stomach since the peer review session the night before highlighted something I suspected.   My five newfound friends were much more experienced photographers than I.   Again I compared myself with the others and assumed they knew much more about photography than I did. 

Today we were instructed to shoot in the manual setting, one  which I have avoided because I thought it was too complicated and didn't bother to learn.   After David explained the camera setting, the others began shooting away.  I didn't understand what he meant as some of this was new language for me.   He reviewed the instructions again.  What don't you understand?    I let him know that numbers scare me.  I am a person of words not numbers,  I explained to David, but he ignored my excuses and continued to explain.  "Pam," he said, "slow down.  Follow my directions.   Take one step at a time.  This is what I want you to do."  I took a deep breath and slowed down.  I listened more carefully and followed the steps he explained one by one.  A couple of images later I checked my histograms and thought to myself, wow,  I think I got it.   David reviewed my histograms and said,  "Pam, I think you got it."


TUNNEL VIEW



Day 3  

Today we would have an early start, which meant no time for  breakfast.  We would leave the motel at 6 a.m. and drive thirty minutes back to the valley and photograph in Cook's Meadow at sunrise.  This would be the same spot where Ansel Adams took one of his most treasured images -- the last remaining elm tree in Yosemite Valley, backlit against the dominance of the majestic rock formation called Half Dome.

The night before I laid out my warmest clothes, so when the alarm went off,  I could dress quickly and be on time.  There might even be extra time to make a cup of coffee in the small drip pot that was in the room. Some of you know that I am always prompt, if not some times early.  I set my phone alarm for 5 a.m., shut off the light, and quickly fell asleep, exhausted from a day filled with new facts and information.  

I was in a deep sleep when I barely heard a light knocking at my door. The second knock woke me up, and the third knock had me jumping out of bed.   I looked at the clock.  It was ten after six!   I had overslept, something I have never done before.  Half asleep, I fumbled with the security lock and opened the door.   "My alarm didn't go off," I shouted to Greg, one of my new friends who came to check on me since I wasn't at the van when we were supposed to leave.  I opened the door a crack and groaned, "Oh, dear,  I overslept.  My alarm never went off."  I was stunned.  "We're leaving now," Greg said. "We will meet you this afternoon when we return to the motel around 2."   What else could I say, but OK, I will see you then, but after closing the door, I stomped around my room like a banshee hen and instead of cluck, cluck, cluck, it was fuck, fuck, fuck."  I could hear the rushing water coming from the Merced River right behind my room, but the tears streaming down my face were silent.  I sat on the bed and looked at my iPhone.  The 5 a.m. alarm was turned on so I don't know why I had a problem.   I brushed my teeth and quickly dressed.  I couldn't worry about the alarm's malfunction.  I needed to figure out my alternatives.  No way would I sit in this drab motel room and wait until my friends returned from Cook's Meadow after they had  fun shooting at sunrise.   My head cleared.   I had a plan.  I would hitchhike to the valley, and if I was unable to find Cook's Meadow,  I would find another place to photograph and meet the group at Yosemite Lodge for lunch.  

Adrenaline surged through my body as I grabbed my jacket, my camera and a hat.  My tripod was still in the van from the day before.  I slammed the room's door behind me and rushed out into the large but silent parking lot, which was filled with cars belonging to guests who were sleeping peacefully in their rooms.   I looked up and down, over and behind, but there was nothing but silence.   There had to be people wanting to get to the valley at dawn, I thought, and suddenly I heard a car's engine start somewhere in the vicinity, but I couldn't see where the noise was coming from.   I had to hurry and find the car so I could talk to the people about getting a ride.  Suddenly I saw headlights coming from a chartreuse-colored van, and I could see the  driver begin to pull away.  I ran as fast as I could toward the slowly moving car, yelling for him to stop and thankfully, he did.  Rolling down his window, a man looked at me curiously, but he gave me a big smile.   I'm sure he heard some panic in my voice. "Are you going to the valley by any chance?" I asked. "Yes, we are," the man said.   "Can I hitch a ride with you?  I'm here taking pictures with a group, and I screwed up.  I overslept."

"We'll make room for you," he said as he rolled up two sleeping bags spread out in the back of the van.   "We are Bill and Arlene, a couple of Aussies, doing a quick American drive by," he told me. "We came for a conference and thought we would rent a well-equipped camper van and see some of your country's beautiful sights."   I climbed into the back of the van and sat on a still-warm mattress, which had been their bed for the night. My legs were outstretched, and I was so rattled, I didn't bother to try and find the seat belt.  Adrenaline continued to pump through my body.  My anxiety level was very high, but I never asked myself this question.  Should I be getting in a car with strangers?  I didn't ask myself because hitchhiking to Yosemite Valley was the only solution to my dilemma.  It was my plan. 

"Do you know where Cook's Meadow is? " I asked Bill.
"No, we arrived late last night," he responded, "so we haven't been to the valley yet."   "If we can't find the meadow," I told them, "you can drop me off at the lodge, and I'll figure out the rest."  I knew there was a good chance I would miss the group, as well as the early morning light. 

The drive seemed to take forever, but once we reached the one-way road I knew we were headed in the right direction.  The Aussies asked me a lot of questions about how to get out of Yosemite and drive to Death Valley, but I was so hyper and too focused to give them an answer that I was sure was right.  "Take a left turn here," I said when I saw the sign for Sentinel Bridge.  David, our instructor,  pointed out Sentinel Bridge the day before and pointed out its proximity to Cook's Meadow.

"There it is. That's the meadow," I shouted when I saw the big black Suburban van we were using parked in a lot across the street.   I also thought I saw a blue down jacket that another photographer had been wearing, but she seemed a long way away.  "I think I see my friends with their tripods.  This is where I want to be dropped off," I said.  I got out of the van, pulled a twenty dollar bill from my pocket and shoved it into Bill's hand as a way to say thank you.  "No, no," he said.  "No way could we take money from you because then we wouldn't see it as our helping out some lady."  I gave him a quick hug and he and Arlene drove away.  

My five friends were a good distance from the van, so I ran fast toward them shouting,  "Hey guys, it's me.  I'm here.  Don't leave.  Please wait."  I was breathless by the time I reached them, and they were shocked and amazed to see me. David handed me the van keys so I could run back and retrieve my tripod.   "We only have ten more minutes of decent light," David said, "so please hurry, but avoid running on the boardwalk because you might cause some vibration for others taking photos.  I ran as fast as I could back to the car and grabbed my tripod from the trunk.  Then I ran back again, opening up my tripod as I moved.   How amazing.  Just a week before I was in my living room learning to open and close the tripod legs under two minutes, and now I was running as fast as I could back to the group and opening the tripod legs at the same time.  Luckily I didn't trip and fall.  I found a spot, set up my tripod and turned the knob to secure my camera on the tripod's head.  I saw the reflection of Yosemite Falls in a small pool of water surrounded by the meadow grass, and the beauty overwhelmed me.  I fought back tears as I turned on my camera.  David's advice from the previous day repeated itself in my head.  Slow down, take one step at a time, focus, and press the shutter release.   Six or seven images later, the other photographers were closing up their tripods.  The light was changing fast.  We had to move on.  I tried to speak to everyone in a calm voice.  I didn't want anyone to guess that my emotions were in overdrive. 



YOSEMITE FALLS REFLECTED


Like photographers do, we followed the light and eventually found another area in which to shoot.   I still couldn't believe that my hitchhiking plan worked, and I was here now with the others taking images of Yosemite Falls reflected in the water, as well as images of  the slowly dying lone elm tree backlit against the granite face of Half Dome.



After a late breakfast at the lodge, we had time to browse in the Ansel Adams Gallery next door.  I wanted to ask about a signed Ansel Adams photograph I bought in this same gallery for $10 in 1967 because over the years I have wondered whether the signature meant the photograph was an original.  I talked with a young man who asked me questions about my photograph.  His questions morphed into a nice conversation about the beauty and solitude of Ansel's images, and that's when I started to cry.  It wasn't an out and out bawl.  Tears simply welled up in my eyes and slid down my cheeks.  I'm not sure what the clerk thought when I quickly wiped the tears away, but I know he saw them.  He probably could also hear some emotion in my voice as I spoke.  He might have thought I was some crazy lady reliving her life in the sixties.  Then I saw a series of small books on a table nearby and picked up one called The Four Agreements.  As I leafed through the self-help book, one of the four agreements jumped out at me.  It said Do not make assumptions.  Continuing further,  I read that making assumptions is believing they are true.  In other words we often don't perceive things the way they really are.  We imagine what other people think, and we make up stories about ourselves and quickly jump to conclusions.  David's words echoed in my head.  Pam, slow down and focus.  You will get this.  We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, and judge the way we judge.  This is why we sometimes fear that others will judge us and blame us as we often do to ourselves.  I bought The Four Agreements book, as a gift, knowing I will order another copy for myself because each of the Four Agreements were pertinent to how I want to live my life.

After the drive back to the motel following lunch, I went to my room and called Bruce.  I told him about what had happened that morning, how horrible I felt, how devastated I was to possibly miss out, and how I blamed myself for being so stupid not to set a second alarm, although that is something I actually never do.  I always rely on my phone.   Then I started to cry.  These were not simply a few tears.  I really began to bawl.  There was silence on the other end.  I blabbered something about how stunned I was at my perseverance to get to Cook's Meadow on my own.  Through the tears, I tried to explain the anxiety I was feeling but at the same time I asked Bruce what was it about this experience that made me so emotional.  I just didn't understand.  Honestly, it took at least several minutes for the bawling to stop.  All this time Bruce remained silent on the phone "Do you know why I'm crying so hard?" I asked.  "What's going on?"  Why am I so emotional?  

"Yes, I know, Bruce said softly.  "I know because I understand you.
What you were feeling this morning was panic and humiliation.  Panic that you would miss out on something really really special, and humiliation because you thought others would judge you.  But you overcame the panic and focused on how you were going to resolve the problem.  You used resources you didn't know you had, and even though you were taking somewhat of a chance by getting into a vehicle with strangers, your resolve to get to Yosemite any way you could pushed you into another zone.  In the beginning it was fear but in the end it was determination, and I have seen you do this before.  This is one of the reasons I love you."  "Oh, my God,  you do understand me," I sobbed.  You truly do.  There was enormous power in Bruce's words.  He truly did understand me.  But why do I do this?  Why do I compare myself with others?  Are these fears based on faulty assumptions I make about myself.  There is no need to judge myself based on the abilities of others.  Can I possibly transform my mind and understand that in reality I am fundamentally equal to others?  Although I pose this as a question, I must accept this as the truth.

It took a combination of fear, determination, and a plan, plus a few sentences from a self-help book to bring me to this realization.  But the real essence of this growing experience was the insights of my incredible husband who truly does understand me, and his ability to synthesize and summarize my babbling words, which set me on a course of continuing to try and understand myself. 

In the meantime, I can exult in my beautiful images of Yosemite Valley, no doubt enhanced by my newly-gained facility of shooting in manual. 






BRIDALVEIL FALLS



LOWER BRIDALVEIL FALLS


NB:  If you are interested in learning more about David's workshops and the programs he offers, please write me at bikerchickgonecrazy@gmail.com.    The two workshops I attended were excellent, and I highly recommend him.






Monday, February 8, 2016

SALLY (1934-2016)

I just received word that an important person in my life and someone I called my friend passed away last month.  Sally died when she was 81.   

I remember where we were when she told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.  We were riding the Stevens Creek loop on our bicycles, which meant a long climb and a steep descent into the village of Saratoga, where we always took a break at a cafe where people hung out with their dogs.  Besides loving to bike, Sally adored her animals, so this particular cafe had more appeal than just loading up on caffeine and enjoying conversation.   

When she told me, we had passed the reservoir and were riding single file on a narrow bumpy road, and as usual, I was behind her, bringing up the rear.   People who ride in the back intentionally are called the sweep, but I didn't deserve that esteemed title.  I rode back there because I was slow.   Sally turned her head and yelled something back at me, but the wind made it difficult to hear, so I didn't catch it all.  I heard her say I haven't told many people yet, but then her words were garbled until I heard her say Parkinson's.  Hearing that word stunned me.  I didn't know whether I should ask her to tell me again or ask her to get off her bike so I could hug her.   

"Let's stop," I said, but she didn't hear me so we kept on riding until we came to the bathrooms at the bottom of the first steep climb.  We leaned our bikes against the fence, and that's when she said  "I've talked with Bob,  and told him I want to go to Oregon when it's time to die.  I don't want to be hooked up to a machine."   Just a few years before, the State of Oregon had passed the Death with Dignity legislation that allowed terminally ill patients to end their life voluntarily.   When I heard these words, I looked at her more closely than I had looked at her before.  She didn't seem any different, she didn't shake, nor did she look sick.  The symptoms of Parkinson's were not obvious.  How could she be sick?  She rides strong, I thought.  I don't remember what else I said, if anything.  I'd like to think it was something comforting like  I hope you don't go to Oregon for a long time.  She swung her right leg over the bike seat, clipped the cleats of her shoes into the pedals, and started to climb the hill before us.  We never talked about her Parkinson's again.  I wasn't ready to face her mortality and talking about it might have made me face mine.  

I met Sally on a club ride around 1994, shortly after I bought a bike.  She and her biking girlfriends were older than I, but they didn't take themselves too seriously, and as a new rider I felt more relaxed riding with them than with an established bike club where testosterone could be called an infectious disease.  When riders talk about bike clubs, they often assess whether it's easy or difficult to fit in, but for me it wasn't so much about fitting in.   I suffered from lack of confidence.  I had anxieties about keeping up.  And most of the time I didn't, and no one likes being dropped on a club ride.

After riding with Sally off and on for about year, I thought I might do a bike tour in New Zealand.  Sally pushed me to give the tour company my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  She urged me to rent a lighter bike so that when I came home, I'd be ready to trade in my heavy hybrid for a lighter road bike. The best advice she gave was to take my own pedals and my own bike seat.  As it turned out, the shop in Christchurch only had mountain bikes for rent, and although the rental bike was even heavier than the one I had at home, it didn't matter because Sally made sure I understood that bicycle touring was also about having fun.   

As a role model, Sally energized me, and helped me to believe that some day I would ride as fast as she did.  She inspired other people too.  Many of us, especially women, who rode bikes looked up to her as someone we wanted to be when we grew up -- even though we were all grown ups at the time.  Until I met Sally, I never knew a  woman who had ridden her bike across the country.  Across the entire United States, I would tell people.   And I'm not sure, but I think she did that ride self-supported, meaning she carried all of her clothes and other gear in panniers that were attached to her bicycle.  She often clocked 10,000 miles a year on her bike.  You could do it too, she would say to me, but you need to buy a lighter bike and spend more hours in the saddle.   She loved to challenge us physically.  When I met her in the early 90s and didn't know what more hours in the saddle really meant, she was the strongest woman cyclist I knew.  She even passed my then-husband going up a steep hill, and for days after, he talked about how Sally passed him.  Her legs moved like pistons.  Although she was a good climber, her nemesis was Quinn Hill, but she made it to the top.   Not too many people can do that.   She stood in her saddle and her weight shifted side to side as she cranked up that hill with fast riders, but she never complained when she rode with me as I climbed slowly in my granny gear, promising her that some day I would buy a lighter bike.   And although I eventually bought a carbon-fiber bike,  I never came close to riding like Sally.

After Sally mentioned her illness, we biked off and on for a couple of years, but as her disease took hold, she didn't ride as much, and because she wasn't biking with her girlfriends, neither was I.    At the same time I met a couple of other women who loved to bike and were about my speed.   Over time I heard from people who knew Sally well that she still rode her bike, but to be safe she and her husband rode the Baylands trail or around the neighborhood to avoid the hazards of traffic.   We didn't see each other after that, but I would hear about her decline from friends who were close to her. 

Now that she's gone I am sorry I didn't stay in touch,  that I didn't make an effort to visit her.   Someone told me that she'd had some type of procedure that enabled her to type and use email, so I emailed her once, but she never wrote back.   When I saw her friends, I would ask how she was doing, but their news was never encouraging.

Sally leaves a legacy within the biking community.  Her many friends will always remember  her encouraging words and what an inspiration she was.  Sally, we miss you.  Wherever you are, may the wind always be at your back and your sweet dog, Ginny, close by your side.


1999    (L-R ) SALLY, PAM, JOSIE, MARY AND LISA
(Taken at a party for my biking friends to meet Lisa who was our guide on the New Zealand trip)


  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TIMELESS SUDAN: The Last Chapter



In a previous chapter about Sudan, I wrote about finding the nomads in the desert, but there wasn't just one nomadic encampment, there were two, and the second family greeted us just like the other -- first with suspicion and then eventually with smiles, probably because they were told in pigeon Arabic by our guide, Laura, that we had come with gifts.  Then there were the nomads on camels who had traveled with their herds from afar to reach the communal well and stock up on water to quench their animals and themselves.   







Picture this.  We are driving in the desert without anything significant to look at except blowing sand when we come upon what looks like a scene straight out of The Bible.  There were men wearing turbans and long white robes, stained ruddy from the red wet clay, working hard to fetch water from the well.  We also saw women and young girls working too, typical of gender assignments in Africa. 





This is how they got their water.

A large bag made of animal skin and attached to a rope was lowered hundreds of feet down into the well until it reached the water table. The other end of the rope was stretched over a pulley at the top of the well and attached to a team of two donkeys.  When the bag was full of water, the handlers steered the donkeys quite a distance away from the well, pulling the heavy bag to the surface for the men to grab and distribute the water in various vessels for both animals and humans. 










Although our visit was relatively short, the nomads must have been there all day.  They looked tired.  While some men worked, others rested, a few smoked cigarettes and most seemed to enjoy our visit.  Some even posed for pictures.  Young girls driving the donkeys yelled in high-pitched voices and used a switch on their behinds to get the beasts of burden moving.  There were camels, goats, sheep and, of course the donkeys.  



TAKING A SHORT BREAK




THIS YOUNG GIRL WAS A DONKEY DRIVER


Fortunately we came upon two wells in one day, a good distance apart.  The setting was much the same at each, but photography at one was hampered by the fact that in almost every scene someone from our group stood in the way, trying to capture an image of the same thing.

The last few days in Sudan flew by.  Before we knew it we were shaking the fine sand out of our smelly shoes and getting ready to head back home.  Most people in our group had god-awful connections that had us waiting for hours in remote places to change planes in the middle of the night.  I will never forget the vivid sights we saw in those last days in Sudan because they were unique and exotic in today's modern world.  

If you would like to see my five minute slide show (with music), click on this link.  TIMELESS SUDAN