Thursday, September 26, 2013


Our cats are glowering at us since our luggage has been pulled out of the spare closet and our travel clothes are stacked up on the guest room bed.   They know what this means.  In just a few days we'll be leaving them behind, boarding a China Air jumbo jet, and heading across the Pacific Ocean.  

Until recently, I had no desire to visit China.  I've been hung up on China's Communist rule and political corruption, gender and social problems, and major human rights issues that have continued from the days of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.    The severe pollution that threatens life in major cities continues to worry me,  and the knowledge that unless China stops burning more coal than the rest of the world combined, we will never halt global warming.   

After several friends expressed surprise at how closed I was about visiting China, I tried to dig deeper into understanding what was driving my biased views.    The paradox is that while I've looked forward to visiting countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that have similar political injustices and unacceptable humanitarian issues, I've had a lot of prejudices about going to China.   

Then last year Bruce and I saw a slide show of a trip to the Province of Sichuan, and after seeing photographs of the beautiful mountain and village scenery, and hearing how the ethnic minority groups still live in much the same way as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago,  I realized I was denying myself an experience that might be truly special.   Self analysis about why I'm avoiding China does not interest me and since stubbornness is not in my nature, I've decided to just let it go and have a good time.   With China undergoing vast and rapid change,  it should have been high on our list of places to visit, especially since the country risks losing its cultural distinction and unique identity altogether. 

Last spring when we saw a fantastic itinerary for a trip to Southwest China, we immediately signed up because the primary objective is to visit the hidden civilization of the remote villages of some of China's 55 ethnic minority groups and to see the spectacular scenery that surrounds them.   

Limestone Peaks of Guilin

These women never cut their hair

For three weeks we'll be traveling in the Southwest Provinces of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan.  Some of the sights we will see are the largest waterfall in Asia and the biggest prayer wheel in the world.  We will take a bamboo raft along one of the tranquil rivers,  photograph the famous limestone peaks, and dine on rice noodles in Guilin.   What excites me most is visiting the traditional villages of the long hair people, talking to the beautiful women wearing the ornate silver headdresses in the village of the Qing Man Miao, and walking across the wooden wind and rain bridges constructed by the native Dong people in Zhaoxing.   We will tour historic palaces,  explore limestone caves, and marvel over the sculptured terrace rice fields of the mountain village of Ping'an.   I hope the weather cooperates, so we can make the five hour trek to Ya Cha village at the Tiger Leaping Gorge and see the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is the southern-most glacier in the Northern Hemisphere.

I have read that Internet and wi-fi connections can be sporadic, so please stay tuned for comments and photos on Biker Chick Gone Crazy, as Bruce and I travel the roads in rural China and experience some of the ancient customs that still prevail today.   

Let the adventure begin.........

Monday, September 16, 2013


 A trip to New York City always seemed to go on the back burner when opportunities to be more adventurous came our way.  As we see it, exotic cultures in Africa, Southeast Asia and other remote places on the globe are highly vulnerable and more likely to become westernized or, in some cases, even extinct during our lifetime.  We figure New York City will always be there, just like other great cities in  Europe, but a recent family gathering on the East Coast was an opportunity for us to visit the Big Apple in August.  After all, we hadn't been there for thirteen years.



After leaving Connecticut, we had no problems driving into the heart of New York City, where we found the Hertz car rental office down a small alley up on the West Side.   The thought of negotiating the mid-day traffic in Manhattan gave me heartburn even before we left California, although I knew we would be using a GPS.   Now I'm wondering why I fretted so, since Bruce is excellent behind the wheel, and has experience driving into the heart of far more difficult cities, like Rome and Madrid.   I guess I'll never forget how nervous I was as a passenger in New York, when my niece exceeded the city speed limit so she could make every green light on our drive downtown.  During that escapade I held on tight and prayed we wouldn't crash into the Pan Am building when we approached the skyscraper at Park Avenue and 45th Street.    


New York seemed different to us this time. For one thing people were friendly and helpful, not aloof and grumpy as I remember them.  New Yorkers greeted us on the subway, and some even offered to help us find our way.  Now that's a positive change.   What stayed the same were how crazy and busy the streets are, and how everybody seems to be in such a hurry to get somewhere, walking faster than normal like they are already late.  To avoid collisions, I dodged pedestrians who were gazing down at their mobile devices instead of looking where they were going.  I squeezed through large groups of international tourists who persisted in walking four or five abreast and taking up the entire sidewalk.    On the subway I was amused to see a mother holding the hand of her small child while using her reflection in the window to apply mascara and eyeliner.     


Since we only booked five nights in the city, we wanted to see as much as we could and eat in some of the well-known restaurants we'd read about in The New York Times.  Our hotel was located right near Grand Central Station, which gave us easy access to subway trains going in every direction.  And speaking of subways, I was stunned to realize that since our last trip, I'd lost all of my skill and some of my bravado for traveling underground and relied solely on Bruce, whom I crowned the subway savant.   I'm sure that if I were traveling solo, I'd pay closer attention and study the map, but on this trip I depended on Bruce's excellent navigating skills and sense of direction, while he relied on my unwavering enthusiasm and high energy to maintain the hectic pace we'd set for ourselves.


Walking on cement sidewalks in New York is tough on feet, no matter how thick the soles of your shoes are.  While we used the subway to go downtown and uptown every day, some days more than once, there was still a lot of walking on sidewalks in between.  On foot we explored many landmark neighborhoods on Fifth and Park Avenues, checked out some of the designer boutiques in Soho, took a food and culture tour of Greenwich Village and bowed to the statue of George Washington on Wall Street.  


While exploring Greenwich Village on this trip, I reminisced about a very special evening I experienced in the early 1980s.   My two nieces, who were living in New York, invited me to join them and some of their friends at a bar in the Village, where many of the Broadway and Hollywood hopefuls hung out.    At the time my now-successful actress niece,  then a budding ingenue, had friends in their twenties eager to break into acting and secure a role in an on or off Broadway show.   Late that night, after all the theaters had closed for the evening, we gathered in a smoky joint called The Pig.   For someone who had spent all of her professional life in an academic setting, I was absolutely fascinated by the discussion that took place that evening, and what these aspiring actors had to say.  They talked about plays they wanted to audition for, parts they thought were perfect for them, the possibility of landing a role in a prominent TV series, and eventually being cast in a movie.    These were deep thinkers, not just dreamers, and  I knew several would be famous some day.   One of them was a charmer named Penn Jillett, a new kid in town, who, with his partner Teller, had a magic show off Broadway that people were beginning to talk about.   Penn was born in a Massachusetts town very close to where my actress niece was raised, so besides both wanting a successful stage career, they shared New England roots.   I remember thinking how enthralling that evening was, and how much I was learning from a special group of young people who were so committed and passionate about their craft.


One of our marathon walks on our August trip began in the Meat Packing District at the start of the New York Hi Line, an elevated freight rail line transformed into a park and beautifully landscaped public walkway.  After devouring a delicious lobster roll at Chelsea Market, we walked the mile-long Hi Line, which is an excellent example of New York's desire to preserve and transform historical elements of the city that might otherwise be demolished.   After walking the Hi Line, we continued on for several more hours back to our hotel, taking a detour to check out busy Penn Station and other interesting sights along the way.  


For five days we did our share of gorging -- chowing down on delicious hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches at Katz's Deli, sampling a wide array of unusual cheeses at Murray's, and eating Joe's famous New York pizza in the West Village.  We dined at restaurants owned by famous chefs Mario Batali,  Lidia Bastianich, and Gabriella Hamilton, but our favorite meal was at the elegant Lincoln, where we shared a melt-in-your mouth pasta with fresh corn and summer truffles.  



I had a lump in my throat when we toured one of the historic houses that is part of the Tenement Museum, as I wondered if my dad lived in a tenement house when he emigrated from Greece to New York.  



And then there were more sobering highlights like visiting the Ground Zero Museum Workshop, which displayed vivid photographs of the World Trade Center recovery process.  At the 9/11 Memorial, I felt very emotional when I touched the cold marble wall at the memorial fountain, and felt the engraved names of those who lost their lives that fateful day. Like all Americans, I will never forget.


Bruce has the highest pain threshold for museums of anyone I know, except for maybe his sister, so we agreed that a day and a half at New York museums would make us both happy this time around.   The rare Civil War Photography exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was intriguing, and I can never see enough Edward Hopper paintings, a famous few of which we saw at The Whitney.  In the photo below, I am standing before a huge Jackson Pollock canvass that is part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.  


The best story from this visit was when we met a street vendor from Mali, who is now an American citizen with a license to sell African artifacts on the street in New York.  We told him we had visited Mali for several weeks in 2008.  He was excited to learn that we had spent time in his native city of Bamako and had visited the ancient city of Timbuktu and the nearby music festival in the Sahara Desert.  We exchanged views on the current political and military turmoil in Mali.  We really weren't serious when we asked  him how much he wanted for an impressive bronze piece because it was very heavy and would be impossible for us to carry home to California. He said that the piece was from Benin in West Africa, and when he offered us what seemed like a very attractive price, we started thinking seriously about how we might get it home.  He assured us that it could be safely wrapped and shipped to us for about $100, and said that if we gave him $100 cash now, he would take care of the shipping, and we could send him a check for the stated price after we received the piece in California.  Since we did not have $100 cash on us, we weren't able to accept his offer.  (We were also skeptical that we might just end up losing the $100.)  Then he said, "Don't worry; I'll send the artifact by UPS, and when you receive it, you can send me a check for the cost of the piece plus $100 for the shipping."  We were absolutely flabbergasted that a street vendor would ship one of his most valuable pieces to strangers in California without any money up front.  He looked us in the eye and said, "I know good people when I meet them.  After all, you've been to my country."  We gave him our name and address, and he assured us that we would have the piece within five days.  As we continued on our way, we talked about whether or not the vendor really intended to take that kind of risk, but we had nothing to lose since we were not out any money.  Five days later a heavy box was delivered to our home in California by UPS.  The bubble-wrapped artifact arrived in good condition.  The next morning we sent a personal check for the full amount plus $100 shipping to this generous and trusting man, and now the beautiful artifact sits in a prominent place in our home.  


Yes, New York is better than ever, and we're sure to go back without waiting another thirteen years.        


Monday, September 2, 2013


My college friend Toni and I hung out together for the one year we overlapped as students.  After that she mysteriously disappeared until I saw her several years later, seven months pregnant and lifeguarding on a beach in Ogunquit, Maine.   She spotted me first and waved frantically to get my attention while yelling, "Hey, Cricket, Hey Cricket.  Over here.  Is that you?"  I knew it had to be someone from college since Cricket was a name I acquired during my freshman year to distinguish me from the three other Pamela's who lived in my college dorm.   


Toni was a WASP  -- a White Anglo Saxon Protestant -- who ate from a silver spoon much of her early life.    She and her mother lived in New York City, and their family had a summer home on the coast of Maine.   We came from different backgrounds, she and I.   Her mother, a mogul for a European fashion designer, spoke with the affect of a socialite, while my mother spoke with an accent of a Greek immigrant.   Toni's mom bought her expensive clothes while mine shopped sales at Filene's Basement.    I ate Greek-style yoghurt my mom made before yoghurt machines were invented, and Toni enjoyed fancy food her mother brought home from Zabar's

In those days it wasn't fashionable to have a heritage, unless your ancestors came to America on the Mayflower, so I avoided any  discussion about where my parents were born.  I  worked hard to camouflage any resemblance to being a rube from hicksville,  and I was grateful that my last name was Perkins and not Pisperikos (thanks to my father's name change after he arrived here from Greece).  

After returning to college following my short stint at Lord and Taylor, I was a New York know-it-all and a New Yorker wanna be.   I bragged to my dorm mates about getting picked up by a man on the subway, who turned out to be a journalist for CBS television.  I bored everyone with my story about selling gold cuff links to Tony Perkins, and I told my classmates that after graduation I was going to be a buyer for a leading specialty store on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Neither Toni nor I needed much convincing that life on a small campus was dull, especially at the all-women's college we attended in Maine.    Several months into the winter term we made plans to spend a long weekend in New York where we were eager to find more excitement and definitely more sophistication.  Toni took me to a party in a lavishly furnished apartment where the parents of her Ivy League college friend lived.    We visited the Guggenheim Museum that Frank Lloyd Wright designed,  and saw a couple of foreign films we knew would never make it to Maine.   I remember telling Toni's New York friends how much I loved Fellini's celebrated film La Dolce Vita, although as I write this, I'm wondering what there was to love because the symbolism in this film was certainly lost on me.    I vividly remember the opening scene:  a helicopter is flying over Rome transporting a statue of Christ and below, on a rooftop, there's a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing.   I'm still not sure what that abstract scene represented, but I think my supposed appreciation for the film's artistic concepts had more to do with appearances and a desire to beef up my image as an intellectual, which I definitely was not.

After a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, one of her rich friends invited us to meet his uncle who lived in a block-long apartment on ritzy Park Avenue.   When the elevator doors finally opened on the top floor of the ten story building, we stepped directly into a king-sized living room.  I was awe struck since I'd never seen a living room like this.  It was filled with furnishings that looked like family heirlooms, and the wood paneled walls were covered with ornately-framed portraits.   It's interesting the kinds of images that impress us as teenagers, but the one thing I'll never forget was that the uncle was still wearing his pajamas and bathrobe in the middle of the day.  

On our last night in New York, Toni and I stood in a long line waiting to get into the Peppermint Lounge, a popular discotheque and one of New York's hot spots,  made famous by Chubby Checker and the dance craze called The Twist. (Click on this link and listen to Chubby.)  After the bouncer checked our IDs,  we walked through the smoky haze and searched the crowd for the Hollywood celebrities we were told convened there.   At our table, which was located next to the dance floor, I ordered a Bacardi rum cocktail, a sweet syrupy drink that only a teenager could love. Toni and I danced the twist until we ran out of booze money and had just enough cash to get us back to the Upper East Side where her mother lived.

After my weekend experience with Toni, I made several longer trips to New York over the years.  I visited my aging aunt and uncle many times,  shopped for my wedding trousseau with my mother,  sought comfort and refuge from a failing marriage at my brother's place, visited my three accomplished nieces when one was an analyst for a well known brokerage firm, another was an actress in an off Broadway play, and the third was a graduate student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  In my fundraising job I visited potential donors in New York with the hope that they might make a significant contribution to their alma mater in California.

In the fall of 2000, Bruce and I went to New York for the first time together,  so I could attend a conference that was held at the World Trade Center.   I remember standing on the top floor in the Windows on the World restaurant, and thinking about how happy I was to be a fundraiser in California and not a retail buyer in New York.  As I looked way down at the Statue of Liberty, I thought about my hard working immigrant parents, who came through Ellis Island more than seventy-five years earlier, raised their kids and built a thriving business.   I am so very proud of them and what they accomplished, and I'm finally proud to call myself a Greek.