Archive for the ‘Interviews with Experts’ Category

Q&A on Costa Rica

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Dr. Suzann Murray is the Chief Veterinarian at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. She oversees the health care of the zoo’s entire animal collection, as well as conservation, research, and training programs. Here, she takes a few minutes out of her busy schedule to talk about the biodiversity of Costa Rica, where she leads our Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage tours.


A tree frog in Costa Rica

Q. As Chief Veterinarian at the National Zoo, how do you integrate your diverse knowledge of animals to create a memorable learning experience on Smithsonian Journeys tours?

A. I have the opportunity to work with a diverse range of species, from fish to mammals and birds to reptiles. Each species, and in some cases, each animal, has its own adaptations to its natural environment. I enjoy using my medical knowledge of animals as a way to provide some “inside” knowledge to tour members. To me, the diversity of animal life is just fascinating. Having the opportunity to share my knowledge of animal adaptations is a great joy.

Q. Costa Rica  is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America and borders both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. How does this geographic location contribute to the rich biodiversity found in Costa Rica?

A. Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, largely due to its two coasts and mountainous ranges that provide a wide range of topography and microclimates for a huge variety of species. From flatlands close to sea level up to the cloud forests of the volcanoes, the varying habitats are suitable for incredible animal diversity. The abundance of rivers and the access to the ocean and the Caribbean Sea also make it possible for endangered species such as dolphins and sea turtles  to call Costa Rica home. Finally, by being so close to the equator, the temperature is in an ideal range to support almost any kind of plant or animal life.


The Arenal Volcano. Photo: Costa Rica Tourism Bureau

Q. Our trip will visit the Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica’s most well-known volcano, which is considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world. How has the Arenal’s presence impacted the surrounding environment?

A. Arenal produces frequent and moderate eruptions. The course of the lava flow has also changed over the years. In areas of previous eruptions, we will be able to observe the re-growth of secondary forest and compare that terrain to the more lava-covered areas of recent eruptions. The south side of the Volcano is known for its unique cloud forest, and it is also known as a region in which world-class coffee is grown.

Q. What types of animals can Smithsonian travelers look forward to seeing in the rainforest: mammals, birds, reptiles, insects? Are there any endemic species that participants may encounter on this trip?

A. If you are a bird enthusiast, Costa Rica is the place to go. If you are not yet interested in birds, be prepared to join the growing ranks of birders! The sheer numbers and types of birds we will see are truly astounding–from colorful smaller birds such as hummingbirds, flycatchers, and toucans, to larger birds of prey and storks. Some of these birds are found only in Costa Rica. For those who are truly wild about mammals or reptiles, we will look for the impressive howler and spider monkeys, unique sloths, sea turtles, caiman crocodiles, and possibly even the rare dolphin. Whether we are searching in the land, sea, or air–we will be seeing an abundance of wildlife.

What’s your favorite tropical animal? Share below.

Click here for educational travel opportunities in Costa Rica for you and your family.


Q&A With Japan Expert James Ketelaar

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Smithsonian Study Leader James Ketelaar is Professor in History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. James lived in Japan for 10 years, primarily residing in Kyoto, and has conducted extensive research on Japanese culture and tradition. Here, we chat with him all about Japan. Click here to join James on his next visit.

Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo


Smithsonian Journeys: After living in Japan for ten years, what is your favorite lasting impression?

James Ketelaar: (Laughs) As you might imagine, there are really too many impressions to select only one. I first went to Japan when I was 18 years old as a junior in college and thus was full of enthusiasm and energy. I recall many 20 hour days as I ran around exploring Tokyo and environs. The last year I was in Japan (2008-09), I served as the Resident Director of an undergraduate program in Kyoto working with students who were very much like me, 30 plus years ago. This is one way to stay young, at least in heart (as I admittedly do not stay up as late as I used to)!

Here are a few snapshots of lasting impressions from over the years, in no particular order: waking at 4 in the morning to complete the climb to the top of Mt. Fujii and then, after the sunrise, running down through snow fields on its sides; watching the evening sun come through rice-papered windows inside a Zen meditation hall on the Japan sea coast; flying into Hokkaidô, the northern island in the winter and realizing how much the topography looked like the upper mid-west of the United States; talking with truck drivers on an overnight ferry heading to Kyûshû and learning about their lives and, in one case, how important ground fish was for fertilizer and the local economy; walking into a favorite restaurant and being greeted with the warm smile of recognition and looking forward to a great meal with a great conversation with the owners, and those sitting nearby…

Q. Our travelers will visit famous Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples. In fact, in many places they coexist next door to each other. Why is this? And is there any special protocol to observe when visiting?

A. This is one of the main areas of my research, writing, and teaching. In fact, I just led a 3 hour seminar on this topic here at the University of Chicago. A (very) short reply here is that Shinto and Buddhism have always been deeply intertwined. The late 19th Century attempt to create two distinct threads or traditions was only partially successful. In fact, the close relation of Shinto/Buddhism proves much more of a difficult issue for observers who expect these to be distinct religious traditions. This being said, some places are indeed clearly “Shinto” and others clearly “Buddhist.” One enjoyable aspect of our travel across the country will be our opportunity to visit the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) combinations of how the gods and the Buddhas live and work closely together in the midst of this very modern world.

In terms of visiting sacred or religious cities in Japan, one need not be overly concerned about protocol beyond common sense ideas of decorum. Photos are generally allowed (more in shrines/temples than in museums in fact), and there are no requirements such as head scarves or long sleeves as can be found in other Buddhist countries, for example. Most popular sites are also active tourist destinations for the local population, and as such, are well planned to handle a wide array of visitors.

Q. The evolution of Samurai culture began as long ago as the tenth century. Technically, the age of the Samurai passed with the Japanese transition from a feudal to an industrial society, yet the “romance” of the Samurai has lived on, captured, for instance, in the enchanted films of Akira Kurosawa. How else do the Samurai live on?

A. We will have the opportunity to visit several samurai-specific locations on this trip, enjoying gardens, castles and cultural practices invented, enjoyed and perfected by this cultural elite. Thus, in terms of material culture and art forms, quite a bit of what is currently identified as distinctly “Japanese” can in one form or another be traced to periods of samurai rule. Indeed, excepting some decidedly popular forms of religion, art, music, painting, and literature, most things one might imagine as “Japanese” will find a samurai in some prominent place in its history: from tatami mats and tea ceremony, to ink brush painting and gardens, temple or villa construction to city planning and economic structures, all find traces here. There are also many very modern re-imagined samurai traces that can be found in the ubiquitous consumption of video games, animated films and inter-net worlds with samurai themes. And of course, let us not forget those who fail the university entrance exams or who are laid off from work and who then call themselves rônin: of masterless samurai!

Q. Imposing Mt. Fujii lies at the intersection of three tectonic plates, yet hasn’t erupted in 300 years. Can you tell us more about this Japanese icon?


Q&A With Opera Expert Fred Plotkin

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Study Leader Fred Plotkin is an expert on music, food and wine, and everything related to Italy. Opera is his great love—he has worked for Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera—and he’s passionate about sharing opera with others. Fred is the author of Opera 101, Classical Music 101, as well as six books on Italy, and can be heard regularly on NPR. Here, he sits down with us to talk about his first love. Click here for more information on Fred and traveling with him.

These Trulli were originally used as storehouses and were built without cement or mortar to avoid taxation. Today, people in Locorotondo, Italy, live in them.

Q: Fred, in your approach to Italy, you often seem to like the path less taken…

A. True. I certainly love the famous spots such as Rome, Florence, and Venice, and I return to them all the time. But they have in some ways become victims of their popularity so that they lack some of the authenticity they had some decades ago. But Italy is a nation that historically was composed of city-states that were little jewels unto themselves, with local food and wine, music, dialects, and traditions. To a great extent these still exist, so going to a small Italian city is to find a true Italian flavor that is harder to come by in the tourist capitals.

Q. For example…?

A. I could name places in all twenty regions. In the past, I have taken Smithsonian travelers to the Marche, the region with 76 jewel-box opera houses, two world-class opera festivals in Macerata and Pesaro (the latter dedicated to hometown boy Rossini) and we visited stunning art towns such as Urbino (birthplace of Raphael) and Ascoli Piceno. While there, we had a cooking class, explored the history and geography, and had time for gorgeous Adriatic beaches. It was much of the best of Italy in one small region that no one had been to.

Q. Where would you go next?

A. Many Smithsonian travelers have told me that they are very interested in southern Italy, which is to say the regions south of Rome. Some of them have been to Naples, Capri,  and Positano, but not much else. These are the regions where most North American Italians have their roots, yet they are not well-known and are very misunderstood. They have divine food, beautiful scenery, very welcoming people and almost no tourism compared to the famous places up north. So each visitor is treated as an honored guest. To me, the two most beautiful towns of many in the South are Martina Franca (in Puglia) and Ravello (in Campania). To me, Martina Franca looks like a set from a Zeffirelli opera production. Whitewashed buildings, churches dominating sunny piazzas, laundry flapping in the breeze, and a bustling passeggiata, the characteristic afternoon stroll that all Southern Italians partake of. Nearby are the famous trulli, ancient conical structures that are the homes people have occupied for centuries. It is the real Italy, but most people don’t know it. Martina Franca also is the home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival that is famous for presenting lesser-known operas by popular composers. We can only see La Bohéme or La Traviata so many times without craving something else, and this festival provides that.

Q. And Ravello?

A. Wait, there’s more to tell about Martina Franca! Nearby is Lecce, a gorgeous town known as the Florence of the South. There are good cooking schools there, and nearby, and I would have us take a class. Then, this area has an institution called the masseria, a sort of walled farm dating from the times when they were built so that invaders could not get in. These magnificent buildings exist to this day, many still serving as farm buildings, others as hotels. I like the ones that produce wine, and I would have a group visit one. And then there is Matera, in the neighboring region of Basilicata. There is no place like it anywhere else in the world. It is a city full of caves that people live in. It is beautiful and mysterious and so off the beaten path that you feel like you are arriving in uncharted terrain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. … And Ravello?

A. Ravello is perched above the Amalfi Coast  in Campania. It is far from the hubbub, a supremely beautiful little jewel where Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, Wagner wrote the second act of Parsifal, John and Jacqueline Kennedy  spent their honeymoon, and other notables such as Greta Garbo and Igor Stravinsky lived in quiet seclusion. I spent five summers there in the 1980s. My favorite restaurant in southern Italy is there, called Cumpa’ Cosimo. I have eaten there on every visit since 1973. The chef/owner is named Netta and she makes the gold standard of dishes that Americans think of as Italian food. But once you taste her ravioli, tomatoes and other products, you will understand what they really are supposed to taste like.

SJ: Is there music in Ravello?

FP: It has a wonderful festival of classical music in gorgeous gardens. This year, for the bicentennial of the birth of Robert Schumann, there will be a lot of his music played there. After stays in Martina Franca and Ravello, we will head to Rome to see a pull-out-all-the-stops production of Verdi’s Aïda at the Baths of Caracalla. I saw it on my first visit there, in 1973, but the festival was soon abandoned for many decades. It only recently returned so I can’t wait to see this great opera in that magical setting.  After this wonderful visit to the best of Southern Italy, many travelers might choose to stay on in Rome for a few days before heading home. I know I will, and will be glad to give tips and suggestions for what to do and where to eat while they are there. For me, that is a pleasure!

Packed yet? Click here  to reserve your spot on our Opera Lover’s Italy tour with Fred Plotkin.

What do you like best about Italy? The scenery, food, people, or music? Comment below.

Q&A With Jim Zimbelman: Iceland

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Dr. Jim Zimbelman is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. He’s also study leader for our Exploring Iceland tour. Here, we quiz him about what Iceland’s unique geology can teach us about other worlds, as well as our own.

Iceland’s Namaskard geothermal area

Smithsonian Journeys: Of all the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial imaging and mapping that you’ve done, how does Iceland’s landscape compare in beauty, drama, violence?

Jim Zimbelman: Iceland is unique in my experience, either for sites of other fieldwork here on Earth or areas that I have examined using spacecraft data. No other place on Earth provides such good access to a mid-ocean ridge; tens of thousands of miles of the global ridge system are beneath the surface of the ocean, but an active oceanic ridge is only above water in Iceland. The geology of Iceland is therefore very helpful for those of us trying to understand volcanic terrains on other planets. With regard to the dramatic, no volcanic location I have visited has the combination of lava flows, glaciers, rivers with large waterfalls, and polar desert vegetation that can be found everywhere in Iceland. Fortunately, Iceland is not violent; even major eruptions can be safely viewed from fairly close distances, much like eruptions in Hawaii.

SJ: The huge volume of water that surges over the Dettifoss and Iceland’s other waterfalls and powers down the glacial rivers – where does it come from? Is it “young” water from recent precipitation? Is it ancient water from glacial melt? What “pumps” it to the surface with such force? Is it the volcanoes under the glaciers and lakes?

JZ:The water in the rivers of Iceland is both young and old.  Every winter the country is blanketed in new snow that in the spring then feeds large runoffs. However, the glaciers are also melting, releasing water that fell as snow tens of thousands of years ago. Both water sources mix together to make the dramatic rivers of Iceland.  The ‘force’ comes from the sheer volume of snow and ice available to feed the rivers; the volcanic bedrock does not need to add additional force (although, when an eruption occurs directly beneath a glacier, the resulting enormous flood when the melt water finally bursts out from beneath the glacier has an Icelandic name – jokullaupe).

SJ:  When and how did scientists realize that Iceland straddles two tectonic plates?

JZ: For centuries scientists realized Iceland had a very strong volcanic component to its history. The realization of how Earth’s crust moves in different plates is a fairly recent development. Individual scientists speculated about it early in the twentieth century, but the globe-encircling concept of plate tectonics was only accepted by the worldwide geologic community beginning in the 1960s. Iceland played an important role in this realization, since it allowed scientists to visit (and measure) the separation of two active plates.

SJ: Given the turbulent geologic history of Iceland, how much has the island changed (size, shape, elevation, climate, etc.) since the earliest Norse/Celtic settlements (est. 7th century?)?

JZ: Iceland has not changed all that much since the time of the Vikings. The glaciers are smaller than they were a thousand years ago, but not all that much else has changed since the conditions as described in the Viking sagas.

SJ: Iceland’s fjords seem to be limited to the north and west coasts. Why?

JZ: The fjords are the result of erosion by past glaciers, and the north and west coasts had the steepest topography down which these ancient glaciers could move. Precipitation is usually heaviest on the NW side of the island since storm systems in the northern hemisphere tend to move from west to east.

SJ: How many times in geologic history has the crust of Iceland been recycled? And how old is Iceland?

JZ: I don’t know the age of the very oldest rocks in Iceland, but I have heard discussions of some rocks that are millions of years old.  Over 99% of the rocks in Iceland are volcanic in origin, and the rocks at the surface are typically tens to hundreds of thousands of years old.  Few of the rocks on the island have been ‘recycled’ in that Iceland does not experience subduction (where the moving plates get shoved into each other), which leads to classic steep-sided volcanoes like Mt. Fuji in Japan or the large volcanic cones along the west coast of the U.S.

SJ:Would you please elaborate on the Icelandic plume, which seems to persist through geologic time, yet wander (or is it the “subaerial” surfaces such as Iceland and Greenland which have wandered?).

JZ: Iceland does indeed sit atop a particularly strong ‘plume’ of magma rising up from the interior of the Earth.  The coincidence of this plume with the mid-Atlantic ridge system is, we think, just that, a geologic coincidence.  Greenland does ‘wander’ in the sense that it is entirely on the North American plate and it moves along with that plate.  Iceland is literally growing as it is pulled apart along the ridge system that runs across the middle of the country.  Each year roughly 2 centimeters of new ‘Iceland’ is formed as the two plates spread apart  along that ridge.

Q&A with Study Leader Joan Gero

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Joan Gero is Professor Emerita of Anthropology from American University and a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology in the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. She has conducted archaeological excavations in the Andes (Peru and Argentina) since 1985 with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, Fulbright, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Heintz Foundation.

Peruvian woman carrying her child in traditional style. Photo by Aaron O'dea

Peruvian woman carrying her child in traditional style. Photo: Aaron O’dea

Smithsonian Journeys: Since Lima is a melting pot of European, Andean, and Asian cultures, how many variations in language, or perhaps dialects, can Smithsonian Journeys travelers expect to encounter here?

Joan Gero: Spanish is spoken as the dominant language today, imposed by the Conquistadors in the 16th century. Two centuries earlier, the Inca had imposed an imperial language (Quechua) of their own, replacing the multitude of local languages spoken by local indigenous groups. Today, some six million Quechua speakers remain (in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina combined).  Meanwhile, the southern native Andean language of Aymara is also alive and well, still spoken by an estimated three million people in Bolivia and Peru, so visitors will most likely hear Aymara in their travels as well.

Q. How did the Andeans come to develop such artistry—in colors, in design—in textiles?

A. Artistry INDEED! The fabulous Andean textiles are truly a treasure to behold. Possibly some designs evolved from earlier pyro-engraved decorations on gourds and calabashes, as well as adopting knotting techniques from producing fishing nets, twined baskets and reed mats, all of which we have recovered from very early sites on the north coast of Peru. But the textiles themselves also go far back in time and include an enormous diversity of techniques including double weaves, discontinuous warp weaves, embroidery and painting on textiles, laces and gauzes.  Colors were originally all derived from plant and animal products: onion skins make a lovely yellow, carbon produces a deep black, guano makes things white, and the red that comes from the cochineal bug is world-renown.

Q. The cuisine in Lima is cosmopolitan, influenced by its European (Spanish, Italian, German), Andean, and Asian (primarily Chinese) populations. How would you describe the cuisine in Cuzco? And are there really potato desserts?

A. Ah, sigh. Cuzco cooking is the real Andean experience, exotic but never straying far from comfort food with lots of satisfying carbohydrates: corn, rice and of course the indigenous potato! Generally there are delicious soups of rich broths and chunks of meat and roundels of corn to start a meal, followed by plates of carbs with delicious, delicate vegetable sauces, which the diner can make as spicy as they wish by adding in hot sauce. In the states, we have adopted two Andean-derived foods in our own diets: meat jerky (from the Quechua word “charqui”) and “corn nuts” as toasted corn kernels. Cuzco street foods are equally tempting, including roasted beef hearts and pork chitterlings, but also melons with spices on them and roasted corn on the cob. Expect simple, healthy, light and fresh home-made foods!

Have you been to Peru? What did you think of the food? Share below.

Shop for beautiful Andean textiles on Treasures of Peru, a Smithsonian Journeys Signature Tour—a great value with international airfare included!