Archive for the ‘Study Leader Posts’ Category

Wonderful Australia and New Zealand

Friday, February 7th, 2014

692_thumbnailGeorge Losey, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii, received his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on the behavior and ecology of the fishes of the East Pacific. His research, mostly on coral reef fishes, includes cleaning symbiosis, intraspecific aggression and learning behavior. His most recent work on ultraviolet vision and coloration in reef fishes led him to Australia’s Lizard Island Research Station on two research expeditions.

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During our farewell banquet on Coral Princess II, an interesting question arose: What color best represents this Smithsonian Journey to you? The majority answer was Green. As an ocean fanatic my choice was (and always is) Blue. I had to admit though, if I could add a “blue modifier” to some of the greens, green was indeed the correct choice.

Starting with the carpet in the ANZ waiting room in the Christchurch airport, green predominated. The carpet was modeled after aerial photographs of the surrounding farms on the Canterbury plains. On the flight to Queenstown, the squares of each shade of green to brown reflected the productive agriculture – a real-life version of the carpet.

Agricultural greens were soon replaced by the deep greens of alpine forests topped with a dusting of snow. These endless greens and craggy peaks continued right into our landing between the peaks near Queenstown. The valley greens covered the lower, glacier-scoured valleys that spread between the more sharply cut peaks that had escaped the glacial smoothing. Snow again provided a white contrast on the peaks to complement the ever-present white of sheep grazing in the valleys.

My favorite, blue, finally appeared in lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake in New Zealand, that ends at the Queenstown beach. But even here green had to be included to form the turquoise color of the lake’s waters. Recent runoff of glacial silt from the mountains had greened the lake to a beautiful compromise between blue and green. As the afternoon progressed, the waters seemed to spawn a growing population of the “young and beautifuls.” Twenty-somethings in their backpacks and leisure garb grew to cover the park in front of our Queenstown hotel with their drum music, tightrope walking, acrobatics and sit-and-talk groups. My temptation to join was tempered only by my age and lack of acrobatic skills.

The greens during our outing to Milford Sound took on deeper shades of the temperate rain forest and towering tree ferns. My blues finally ruled as our boat cruised out over the sound with the almost mandatory rains feeding the waterfalls.

In Sydney, I had to venture into the extensive Royal Botanic Gardens where green replaced the sandstone and concrete buildings. Australia Day in Darling Harbor provided a rainbow of people and fireworks to satisfy anyone’s choice of “trip color.”

Finally the Coral Princess II cruising up from Cairns to Lizard Island gave me my blue colors but most were again modified by a green tint of either coastal water or sandy patches on the numerous coral reefs. Weather provided a challenge for our captain to navigate to areas where we could enjoy the promised colors of the Great Barrier Reef. He mastered the increasingly rough waters to Ribbon Reef 9 for a great glass-bottom boat,  snorkel or scuba excursion to the reef face. Green dominance suffered here as the reef fish enjoyed presenting every color of the rainbow in a beautiful example of evolutionary extravagance.

A quick dinner and relaxing evening at the Shangri La Hotel in Cairns gave us a finale to the story of our journey that is certain to turn our friends at home green with envy. I’m ready to go again!

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To learn more about our Australia and New Zealand Tours, click here.

The Remote Land of Patagonia

Friday, February 7th, 2014

688_thumbnailPepper Trail has traveled around the world in the course of his studies on the ecology, behavior and conservation of birds. After receiving his Ph. D. from Cornell University, Pepper did post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the California Academy of Sciences. An expert photographer and writer, his work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic and American Birds to Science, Evolution and Conservation Biology. Pepper has led natural history tours in Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil and the Amazon, and his enthusiasm and sense of humor always convert a few ‘non-birders’ to ‘birder’s every trip. He is the ornithologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

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The very word “Patagonia” conjures up images of untamed wilderness, windswept and remote.  And indeed, that is what our group of intrepid travelers experienced again and again on this journey – climbing to the base of the Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego; standing on the cliffs of Cape Horn, looking south toward Antarctica; walking among a herd of wild guanacos beneath the towering spires of Torres del Paine National Park; hiking above treeline on the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District.  All this adventure was cushioned by our nightly return to luxurious lodgings, where we relived the day’s events over gourmet meals.

In the finest Smithsonian tradition, we learned as we traveled, with lively discussions on topics ranging from how Gondwanaland lives on in Patagonia, to how Darwin’s explorations of the region shaped his theory of evolution, to the extraordinary adaptations of albatross and penguins to their challenging world.

Finally, our experiences in two great South American capitals, Buenos Aires and Santiago, were the perfect prelude and postscript to our Patagonian journey. Whether we were watching a stunning tango show in Buenos Aires or creating our own special red wine blends at the Verramonte Winery outside Santiago, these cities provided a sophisticated and glittering frame to our wilderness adventures.

For all of us, “Patagonia” is no longer terra incognita, the uttermost end of the earth.  It is a place filled with memories, of adventures with an extraordinary group of fellow travelers, and of transcendent landscapes which will remain part of us forever.

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To learn more about our Patagonian Explorer tour, click here.

Pura Vida and the Delights of Costa Rica

Friday, January 24th, 2014

687_thumbnailBob Szaro grew up fascinated by nature and started bird-watching while in grade school. His love of birds has led to travels and research around the world including many trips to Central and South America. His passion for different cultures, natural history and photography has led to his exploring the variety of landscapes found in Costa Rica starting in 1982 from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the dry forests of Guanacaste. Bob retired in 2008 as Chief Scientist for Biology for the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Bob received a Dual Bachelors Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from Texas A&M University (1970), a Masters Degree in Zoology from the University of Florida (1972), and a Doctoral Degree in Ecology from Northern Arizona University (1976). He also completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University (1993). Bob currently serves as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution on biodiversity, climate change, and tiger conservation.

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January 6-17, 2014

Traveling through Costa Rica you learn to expect the unexpected.  Everyday something new and exciting was waiting for us as we drove through the mountainous volcanic region of Costa Rica ending with a few days on a gorgeous beach along the Pacific Coast of Guanacaste.  Our journey was one long treasure hunt for cultural highlights and natural wonders.

One of those cultural highlights was spending time talking with Marvin Rockwell (now 91). He was one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde. His story amazed us all with how they came to Costa Rica in 1951 and settled their “Green Mountain.” They were attracted by the beauty of the country and the fact that in 1948 Costa Rica abolished its Army to fund schools.  The journey was not easy as several decided to travel from Fairhope, Alabama by land in a few vehicles to bring some of their belongings.  At that time, the Pan American Highway was more myth than reality.  When they traveled through Nicaragua and reached the Costa Rican border they found no road at all.  It took 3 months to travel the 12 miles to the nearest settlement. The Quakers chose Monteverde in particular because of the high elevation and the sizable area of relatively flat land.

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

The fabled nature reserve they helped start is now a major destination for those seeking to experience the cloud forest. With its many vines, epiphytes, and trees it is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica. It is also famous for the Resplendent Quetzal and hundreds of other bird species. One of the features of the cloud forest that is hard to miss is, of course, the clouds. Walking through the forest with the mist swirling around us was truly a magical experience. And if that was not enough, we found ourselves at the end of the rainbow.

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

But many other natural wonders were waiting around every corner.  It is tough to only highlight a few as we saw so many. They included the Three-toed Sloth crossing the road near Arenal National Park, the crocodiles and monkeys along the Tempisque River, and the many butterflies and iguanas we saw everywhere we went.

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the birds. We saw and heard birds at every stop including toucans, tanagers, trogons, jays and hummingbirds.  In fact, we were even able to have hummingbirds land on our fingers at the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde.

 humingbird

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Yet, best of all, we were able to meet some wonderful people and make many new friends. Enjoying travel with others makes great times even better.  Pura Vida!

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For more information on our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures, click here!

The Evolution of Rabat

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

295_thumbnailKenneth Perkins received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He is a Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where he has served on the faculty since 1974 and teaches courses on Islamic civilization, the history of North Africa and the Middle East in the Islamic Era, and U.S. relations with the Middle East. A frequent traveler to the Middle East and North Africa, Dr. Perkins has conducted scholarly research in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Sudan. He is the author of Qaids, Captains, and Colons: French Military Administration in the Colonial Maghrib, 1844-1934; Port Sudan: The Evolution of a Colonial City; Tunisia: Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds; and A History of Modern Tunisia; as well as numerous articles, book chapters, book reviews, and encyclopedia and other reference entries. He is currently working on a book examining the social, economic, and political impact of Western travelers in North Africa from 1870 to 1939.

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In a country where almost half the population lives in rural areas, it is Morocco’s cities which attract the most attention from international visitors. Fez and Marrakesh are certainly the best known, and the most dramatic in putting forward living images of Moroccan traditional life. No visit to the country would be complete without spending some time in each of them.  But fabulous as they are, neither is my favorite Moroccan urban center. That is Rabat. The modern part of the city was conceived by the first French resident general, Hubert Lyautey, but constructed in consultation with the architect and urban planner Henri Prost.  The intent was to shift the political focus from the traditional capitals of the interior (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes) to the Atlantic coast, thus making the center of Moroccan government more accessible to the West and its ideas and less prone to disruption by the tribal forces of the interior. Rabat’s compact downtown, with its early twentieth century building designs, could just as well be anywhere in the south of France or elsewhere in southern Europe. Lyautey and Prost insisted on a distinct separation between this modern city and the old traditional medina, thereby enshrining a pattern apparent in all Moroccan urban centers of the traditional walled city physically separated from the modern European one. The resident general justified his decision on the grounds that it would preserve traditional arts, crafts, and practices, which it did, but at the cost of creating two distinct worlds which later critics interpreted as the imposition of a colonial apartheid.  Similar thinking led the fiercely Roman Catholic Lyaytey to ban Christians from entering mosques – a prohibition later adopted by independent Morocco and honored (with the colossal Hassan II mosque in Casablanca the sole exception) to the present day.

As the national capital, Rabat has always hosted a diverse diplomatic community which has contributed to its cosmopolitan flavor. Today, the currents of globalization have underscored that characteristic.  One example can be seen in the Catholic Cathedral dating to the 1920s. The mix of diplomats from all over the world at a Sunday morning Mass are now joined by large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants from former French colonies who have come to Morocco in search of employment, or perhaps as a stopping off point in their anticipated journeys to Europe.

Rabat’s link with Europe is by no means new and evidence of it abounds in the city, whose signature landmark, the Tour Hassan, was built by a twelfth century ruler who presided over a domain that included Andalucía and much of North Africa all the way south to the Sahara and beyond. The tower stands guard over the mausoleum of Sultan Mohammed V, widely seen by Moroccans as the father of the independent nation. Every time I visit this site, I am struck by at the number of Moroccans, and especially Moroccan families, who come there. The monarchy enjoys a position of respect in the country similar to the situation in Great Britain and this burial place, not only of Mohammed V, but of his son, Hassan II, who ruled the country from his father’s death in the 1960s until his own in the 1990s, is a vivid reminder of the ongoing prestige (and power) the institution enjoys.

Both the tower and the mausoleum stand on a plateau overlooking the river Bou Regreg, recently the focal point of a tremendous revival. A decade ago, the most direct way to visit Rabat’s sister city of Salé was to be rowed across by one of a fleet of boatman who plied the river. They are gone; their former bailiwick now a marina for pleasure boats. Less than a mile further downstream, the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean near a cluster of sandbars that once served to protect its banks from European naval vessels pursuing the swift and elusive corsair ships of the so-called Salé Rovers whose victims included Daniel Defoe. Hardly any tourist visits Salé these days, but one of the highlights of this trip was a luncheon in a private home in that city as guests of its owners, descendants of the government official who built it as the first structure outside the city walls,  in the 1930s.  Driving back across the river on the bridge carries not only vehicular traffic, but also the carriages of the light railway that now serves Rabat and its suburbs, including Salé  – another recent addition to the cityscape – serves as a reminder of Rabat’s constant evolution, which values heritage, history, and progress in equal measures.

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To learn more about our Splendors of Morocco tour, click here.

Diwali Fervour

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

251_thumbnailMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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Coming to India is a sure tryst with colour, verve and vibrancy. And if you come in time for the biggest Hindu festival, Diwali (held in October or November as per the lunar calendar), you are in for a super-sized magnificent celebration that exceeds your imagination.  Diwali or Deepavali is one of India’s most well-known festivals and is celebrated with gaiety and pomp throughout the country. The name Deepavali comprises of two words – deep meaning light and avali referring to a row -   the name thus translates to a row of lights.  A festival of bright lights, fireworks, beautiful floor paintings called rangolis, beautiful new clothes, mouth-watering delicacies and sweets, Diwali is an opportunity to spend wonderful moments with loved ones.

Like many other Indian festivals, Diwali has its roots in ancient times when it must have started off as an important harvest festival. Several myths revolve around Diwali and thus it is a celebration with multiple meanings spread over five days. In North India, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana who was banished to 14 years of exile by his father King Dashrath to fulfil a wish made to Rama’s step-mother Queen Kaikeyi. Rama, the heir to the throne, is a dutiful son and leaves for the forest accompanied by his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. In the forest, Sita is abducted by the demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana and taken away to his island kingdom. Rama, aided by his devotees including Hanuman, the monkey-god, wages a battle with Ravana and brings Sita back. Diwali marks the night Rama comes back to Ayodhya, the capital of his kingdom with Sita and Lakshmana after 14 long years. The people of Ayodhya are joyous and light up the night with row upon row of oil lamps to celebrate his return, a practice followed even today.

Diwali also symbolizes the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakaasura who troubled the gopis ( milk-maids) of Vrindavan. In the south of India, Diwali celebrates the defeat of Bali, a demon king by Lord Vishnu who appeared before him in his avatar as Vamana, the dwarf. The king offered to fulfil any wish and Vamana asked for three paces of land. The moment Bali agreed, Vishnu assumed his magnificent form – with one stride, he covered heaven, with the second, the nether-world. Bali in humility offered his head for the third stride and in doing so, attained immortality. Vishnu made him the king of the underworld and Diwali is the one day Bali is allowed to return to Earth so that his devotion to Lord Vishnu and his good deeds can be celebrated.

The Feminine is not forgotten on Diwali – Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped in every home. In India, ‘spring cleaning’ happens in autumn before Diwali as homes are renovated, painted and cleaned thoroughly in Goddess Lakshmi’s honour. Beautiful floor patterns called rangolis are made with rice-flour, coloured powders or flowers in different parts of the country. In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Diwali brings the worship of Goddess Kali, the fierce deity who represents power.

For our group, what better place to await Diwali than the holy city of Varanasi, one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres for Hindus all over the world. Even though Diwali was the day after the group was leaving for US, all of India was caught up in anticipation of this amazing festival. In fact, from the moment the trip started in New Delhi, Diwali ‘fever’ was in the air. The road to Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India was lined with shops selling fireworks and guests were able to see people buying up myriad crackers for Diwali. Colourful banners advertising the major firework brands lined the narrow streets of Chandi Chowk where we went for our rickshaw ride – a spell-binding ride if ever there was one.

En-route to the Dera Village retreat and thereafter to the city of Jaipur, the highway was punctuated by colourful stalls selling brightly hued yarn and tinsel-embellished truck decorations as well as black tassels to remove the evil eye, beautiful scarves, pennants, etc. For a truck driver, the truck is not just a machine – she is a beautiful woman, precious to the truck-driver and deserves to be gifted with ornaments. The stalls were a photographer’s delight – row upon row of intense colour and bling, a quintessential India image.

As our trip progressed, so did the Diwali ‘fever’ accelerate across the cities we visited. In Jaipur, all the markets were being decorated with strings of bright silver and gold tinsel spread out like a canopy overhead. Loops of lights were being festooned from one building to another and colourful fabric gates were being erected on all major roads – the bamboo scaffolding for the gates were like gigantic art installation in themselves. Stalls selling terracotta lamps or diyas  were prominent in all the markets. Stores dealing in electric lights and lamps were not far behind in advertising their wares by stringing up these lamps right out in the street from trees, bamboo poles or street-lights. Clothing stores, showrooms for cars and electric goods, furniture shops – each shop was bedecked as a bride with bright flowers, fabric pennants and fairy lights beckoning customers to come over. Customarily, most Indians invest in new appliances, clothing and vehicles at Diwali and it is a bountiful time for these stores.

Our last stop, Varanasi, was especially brightly lit up for Diwali was just a day away. Our boat-ride was magical that evening with the lights on the ghats. Early in the morning, there was a mile-long queue of devotees waiting to get into the Vishvanath temple as it was the auspicious day of Dhanteras, the day to worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kubera, the deities representing wealth and prosperity. It is also a day to buy metal – precious ones like gold and silver  or less expensive ones such as steel and iron. During our bus ride through the city, we saw utensil store display a wealth of steel vessels, containers, pitchers and lunch-boxes. Another interesting and eye-catching display seen across the city were temporary stalls selling clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesha, ranging from plain terracotta colour to poly-chrome painted ones. Everyone in the group could not resist clicking pictures of these statues. Varanasi was well and truly geared up to celebrate Diwali and so were we!!

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!