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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Bird in the Tree

Do wild birds have a sense of humor?

Some believe that crows and ravens, as well as parrots, do in fact have a sense of humor. But the bird in question is a Cooper's hawk (formerly known as a chicken hawk) that seems to delight in setting my dogs off.

This bird has taken up residence in the trees on my property for the past several years. It seems to prefer the cottonwoods, although recently I heard the flap-flap-flap of its wings through a row of pine trees that line one side of my driveway. Cooper's hawks hunt by flying through dense forests, so hearing one in the pine trees didn't surprise me.

This hawk has a distinctive call, more commonly heard during the spring mating season. The mere sound of the bird sends two of my dogs into a frenzy. They demand to be let outside, and as soon as the door is opened, they tear into the yard in search of the offending creature. Bailey and Benny seem to detest this bird, while Layla couldn't care less. The bird, for its part, sits safely out of reach in a tree.

Last year a Cooper's hawk couple built a large nest in one of the cottonwood trees. I hope they do so again this year and successfully raise another clutch of young hawks. 

I was able to get this photograph of the hawk in a cottonwood tree one recent evening. It's rare to get a good look at the feathered guest, since it is usually obscured by leaves. I dashed inside to get my telephoto lens for a closer shot, but the bid was gone by the time I got back outside. Despite my limited eyesight, I could see well enough with one eye to use the autofocus function on the camera.

I don't see a lot of birds here in central New Mexico -- usually just quail and the occasional road runner. Bald eagles are sometimes spotted near the Rio Grande River during the winter, and I often hear the distinctive sounds of sandhill cranes flying overhead or looking for food in the nearby fields. A neighbor one street over warned me last year about a great horned owl that had attacked her small dog in the pre-dawn darkness in her yard (the dog was scratched and scared, but otherwise OK). And one morning just before 5 a.m. I heard the who-who-who of a hoot owl, the first time I have heard this visitor to the neighborhood.

I'm sure my dogs would love to have this hawk take up residence elsewhere, but having a raptor, even a small one, living on my property is a real treat for me.It's a little touch of nature in an urban area, and just one more reason why I like to live on my 1/2-acre lot on the edge of town.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Twenty Years from Now

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

-- Mark Twain

For the past few years, I have taken between eight and 10 trips each year, many to international destinations. I have been asked many times why I travel so much.

I usually respond with a comment about not knowing how much longer I will be able to travel, so I want to do as much of it as possible while I still can. The future is guaranteed to no one. An illness, an accident, a life-threatening disease can strike any of us at any time. Life can change in the blink of an eye.

This hit home for me recently when I suddenly developed serious problems in both eyes. The retina in my left eye was completely detached, requiring emergency surgery to reattach it. A week after surgery, vision in that eye is still severely compromised, but improving. The retina in the right eye was detached in places, and the surgeon used an ultra-cold substance to try and 'stick' the retina back in place. All of this resulted in my having to cancel a photographic safari to Tanzania. With a gas bubble in the left eye pressing the retina into place, flying on an airplane is not possible. I wear a bright green wrist band to alert medical personnel and first responders of the presence of the gas bubble.

So when I ran across the above quote from Mark Twain on a Facebook friend's timeline, it really struck a chord with me. As a senior citizen who is experiencing some of the effects of aging (arthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts), I don't really need to be reminded that life is short and guaranteed to no one. But sometimes an extra kick in the pants is a good thing. Once my vision is back to normal (and I am confident it will be), I plan to continue my travels. I already have signed up for the same Tanzania photo safari next April. And I have booked trips to Yellowstone, Alaska, Brazil and Ethiopia for 2018. I recently bought a new lens for my camera after thinking about it for a long time. Regret is something I don't want to be part of my future.

Photography and travel are my favorite pasttimes, and I intend to engage in both for as long as I am physically able. My advice, although I'm far from as famous as Mark Twain: Don't let life or fear keep you from following your passion, whether it is travel or writing, cooking or starting a business, or anything else. Find your passion and find a way to make it part of your life. 

My list of places I hope to visit is long, and I keep hoping that my photography will someday be more popular. And I hope I have another 20 years of pursuing my passions. I want to never have to regret the things I didn't do.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A New Photo Blog

A couple of weeks ago, I started a new photo blog called Through the Lens Weekly.

Every week, on Monday morning, I post a photograph and a brief description of the story behind it.

That's it. I was inspired to do this by a German woman I met on a winter photo trip to Yellowstone National Park. She is much more ambitious, however, and posts a photo every day on her Facebook page.

I plan to post photographs I haven't posted previously, and to vary the subject matter. So far I have posted a photograph of a classic Chevrolet in Cuba, and a picture of Monument Valley. I had a couple of posts ready to go before my recent eye surgery, so I hope to be able to continue to post an image each week as my eyes heal.

Please check it out at  If you're so inclined, you can sign up to receive an e-mail alert each week when a new image is posted.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Question of Vision

This post is a difficult one to write. No, I mean it really is difficult.

Why is writing a blog post so difficult, you may ask. It's because I have severely limited vision. 

Less than a week ago, I had emergency surgery on both eyes. My left eye had a detached retina; my right eye had a torn and partially detached retina. My daughter took me to the local emergency room, where the physician called the on-call ophthalmologist. My son-in-law drove me to meet her and another ophthalmologist. She initially planned to treat the tear with a laser then and there, but she soon realized there was too much blood in the right eye for that to be successful. Then I mentioned the blurriness in my left eye, which started about three weeks previously, just two day before my trip to Cuba. That comment changed everything, as the ophthalmologist quickly realized that the left retina was completely detached. I was scheduled for surgery on both eyes on Sunday morning.

Surgery on the left eye, during which a gas buble was inserted to press the retina against the back of the eye, took an hour under a local anesthetic. Surgery on the right eye, which involved the use of ultra-cold to 'stick' the torn parts of the retina against the eye, took 30 minutes. There was some discomfort in the right eye, which quickly went away with the addition of some pain medication to the IV line.

Since then, I have had to sit with my head down, staring at my feet, for as many hours each day as I can stand. When I walk, I have to keep looking down. This apparently helps the detached retina reattach itself. A follow-up appointment three days after surgery showed the left eye doing well, but there is an area of concern in the right eye. I will find out on Monday afternoon whether I will need gas bubble surgery on Thursday. If that happens, I will essentially be blind until the initial gas bubble in the left eye dissipates over time. It is a 'two-week' bubble, so I am hopeful that it will be gone in another week or so.

As a writer and photographer, and as someone who loves to read and who values her independence, this has been a very humbling experience. I was advised not to read, as the movements of the eyes during the process of reading could interfere with the reattachment process. But I am writing this blog with my eyes closed (most of the time) and my head down. I limit my reading to just a couple of minutes at a time, and I use a magnifying glass. 

I was told that retina detachment is not uncommon following cataract surgery (which I had 12 and 14 months ago), but I had not heard this until my problems suddenly developed. It also is more common in people who are very near-sighted, which I was. So if you suddenly get blurred vision in one or both eyes, and if you see thousands of tiny spots (I describe them as looking like bits of pepper), and if you feel as if you are trying to see through an opaque shower curtain, seek immediate medical treatment. Left untreated, this condition can result in blindness.

I am lucky that several people urged me to seek emergency medical care. The prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. Be willing to ask for assistance. My daughter, son-in-aw and a local friend have been wonderful in driving me to appointments, grocery shopping, etc. I can get around pretty well at the moment, although it isn't yet safe for me to drive. If I have to have surgery on the right eye, I will be extremely reliant on others. This is a very humbling experience, but it has made me appreciate those who are helping me, as well as the amazing medical advances that make it possible to lead a normal life after this unexpected chain of events. 

Although I had to cancel a planned photography trip to Tanzania because I am unable to fly until the gas bubble is gone, I am signed up for the same trip a year from now. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth the risk to my eyesight. So please, get a regular eye exam, and if you have had cataract surgery or if you are very near-sighted, ask your ophthalmologist about the risk of retinal detachment and tearing.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cuba: Close, But a World Away

After recently spending eight days in Cuba, I came away somewhat confused about this island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

I didn't have a lot of expectations going into the trip, but I had high hopes of getting some great photographs. And of course I was looking forward to seeing the old (late 1940s and 1950s) American cars that have been lovingly restored by Cubans. Little did I know just how
many of these beauties there are in Havana and elsewhere on the island.

I expected to see lots of images of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. I saw very few. But there were many images of Che Guevara, Castro's fellow revolutionary leader. I expected poverty, but rather than poverty, what I saw was a simple way of life. The people live in humble homes and eat simple foods. Rural areas, as is often the case, are more likely to live in poverty. We visited just one rural family home. It was recently built, and the family was very proud of their new, dirt-floor, one-room house.

I expected to see people oppressed by their government, but what I found were happy people despite their lack of material goods. Cuban people love to laugh, dance and drink. They are willing to share whatever they have with family and neighbors. If they are unhappy, they hide it well.

I saw magnificent old homes. Some have been converted into offices or embassies, while others are derelict. I saw a multi-grave burial site with marble headstones that remains unused because the owners fled to the United States when the 1959 revolution occurred and never returned. 

I saw no separation of the races in Cuba, with the descendants of Spanish conquerors mingling effortlessly with the descendants of African slaves

Cuba is changing little by little, but the pace of change is slow. Cell phones are not commonplace, and there are only four government-run television stations. The Internet is illegal in private homes, although Cubans do have Internet access in government-owned Internet cafes. Cubans cannot read books, magazines or newspapers not published by or approved by the government. So the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government, as is nearly everything else.

Cuba is an interesting blend of communism/socialism and capitalism. Families are now allowed to operate paladares, or state-sanctioned restaurants, in their private homes. We ate at several paladares. Menu choices were usually limited to three or four entrees, such as fish or lobster, chicken, pork or lamb. Similarly, families can operate state-sanctioned boarding houses, or casa particulares, by renting a room or two in their homes. I stayed in a casa run by a woman and her adult daughter. There were two rooms available, a double just off the living room and a single off the courtyard. My room was small and simple, but it had everything I needed, including a wall-mounted air conditioner. And the hostesses couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating. Best of all, I got to spend time with their 3-month old Pekinese puppy, Carly.

We stayed four nights in Havana and three nights in Trinidad. Havana is a typical, bustling capital city. Trinidad is smaller and has a more tropical feel. Streets are mostly cobblestone, and sidewalks are quite narrow. I watched my feet often as I walked along to avoid tripping on cobblestones or stepping into potholes.

Although Cuba isn't a free society, Castro's legacy includes things not available to the populace before the 1959 revolution: free education, including college, for everyone, as well as free healthcare and food subsidies. Each Cuban receives a monthly booklet listing a variety of food items available; the amount depends on the size of the household. These items are obtained from a market, with each quantity carefully recorded in the booklet. Each food ration is designed to last three weeks. For the fourth week, citizens either purchase food with their own money, or they rely on the generosity of family, friends and neighbors. As a result, it is very rare to see fat Cubans. 

Cubans pay personal income taxes if they engage in economic activities outside government employment. I expected that crime in Cuba would be a problem, given the low wages of its people. But Cuba is, in fact, a very safe place to live and visit. I was told by our Cuban guide -- a true child of the revolution -- that the biggest crime is people stealing from the government. Corruption is a moderate problem since few citizens are reluctant to steal from the government, which controls most resources. Bribery also reportedly is widespread, even in medical care. Musicians are reported to regularly pay bribes to perform in tourist areas, where they can earn convertible currency. A bicycle taxi license is reported to cost $150 in bribes. But such crimes aren't apparent to visitors to the island.There are no official crime statistics released by the government, so the crime rate is unknown.

I got up early and went exploring several mornings in both Havana and in Trinidad and I was impressed by how many people wished me a "Buenos dias." I was asked for money (usually 1 peso, or about a dollar) a few times, but it was nothing like what I experienced in Zimbabwe, where the hounding for money was so bad I retreated to my hotel. A couple of people asked for bath or laundry soap, and a couple claimed to need "One peso for baby." My group took a large variety of personal care items and school supplies that were given to deserving families and schools, so I was not inclined to give anything to street beggars.

Transportation is available by a variety of means: Taxi (classic cars), modern taxis, three-wheeled taxis, pedi-cabs, horse-drawn wagons, public buses, horseback, and tractor-drawn
wagons. It is a legal requirement for buses to pick up and transport anybody needing a ride, at no charge. So the bus that dropped my group off at the airport in Cienfuegos was required to transport anybody needing a lift to Havana.

There appears to be no animosity toward Americans, as there was no animosity toward Cubans from the Americans in my group. I enjoyed the required 'people to people' component of the trip, which saw us engaging with professional dancers, women in an embroidery shop, a local artist and employees of a family-owned pottery business. I was happy to share digital photos of my daughter and my dogs with the hostess of the casa where I stayed. Because Cuba is cut off from the outside world's television, Internet, books and magazines, it seems relatively easy to control the flow of information and ideas that might make the Cuban people yearn for more freedom and for more consumer goods. Whether that remains the case is to be determined. 

I really enjoyed my time in Cuba. The weather was wonderful, the people friendly and helpful, and the photographic opportunities different from any experienced in other countries I have visited. I will return to Cuba if the opportunity presents itself. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about our colorful, energetic neighbor so close yet a world away.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Stop the War on Women!

Correct me if I'm wrong, but do we not live in the 21st century?

We do? That's what I thought. So why are women still under attack, not just in some tribal third-world country, but by Republicans and their allies in the United States?

A few examples:
  • Women's health care clinics are vanishing under pressure from the ultraconservatives.
  • Planned Parenthood doctors have been murdered and clinics fire-bombed. So much for respecting all life, huh?
  • Members of Congress demand that women pay for their birth control, rather than their medical insurance provider, while those same providers continue to pay for Viagra (a much more expensive medication) without a word being said.
  • Several Republicans have made comments that appear to excuse rape and imply that it is somehow the woman's fault. One even talked about "legitimate rape." Excuse me, but what the hell does that mean?
  •  A Republican official recently admitted to pinching the groin of a coworker. His attorney explained that this sexual assault was just "trivial." How about women start grabbing men by the balls and see how they like it? Would that act be considered "trivial"?
  • An Oklahoma Republican recently said women should not be able to have abortions without the written permission of their male partner because women are, after all, merely "hosts" to the embryo. He claims that once a woman becomes pregnant, she gives up all autonomy over her body and becomes a mere "host."
  •  Utah Republican James Green, in a letter to the editor, stated that "If businesses are forced to pay women the same as male earnings, that means they will have to reduce the pay for the men they employ, simple economics," Green wrote. "If that happens, then men will have an even more difficult time earning enough to support their families, which will mean more Mothers will be forced to leave the home (where they may prefer to be) to join the workforce to make up the difference." His comments created so much backlash, even from fellow Republicans, that Green apologized and resigned from his position as vicechair of a county GOP organization.
  • Former Arizona Republican lawmaker Russell Pearce, a true troglodyte, stated in 2014 that women seeking food stamps or Medicaid assistance should be required to be sterilized first. He made no mention of men being sterilized before they can qualify for these programs.
  • Republicans in Congress are dead-set on defunding Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that only a miniscule portion (3 percent of total services provided) of the organization's activities are abortion-related. And let us not forget that long-standing federal law prohibits the use of any federal funds to provide abortions. So what exactly is the point of removing funding for cancer screenings, anemia testing, diabetes and cholesterol screenings, thyroid and high blood pressure screenings, routine and emergency contraception, infertility testing,and many other services? I don't like the idea of abortion, but the woman involved, along with her physician, should make the decision based on what is best for her. No legislative body should have that power. And Americans should not be forced to live under the beliefs of any religion, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or anything else. 

  •  A US senator recently told Sen. Elizabth Warren to "sit down" as she read a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. opposing the nomination of Jefferson Sessions for a federal judgeship some 30 years ago as Sessions' nomination to be the US attorney general was being debated. The next day, two male senators were allowed to read the letter. Not too much hypocrisy, is there?
Although Republican politicians deny they are waging a war on women, their actions belie their claims. How else does one explain Republicans' continuing efforts to take away women's rights to make decisions about their own bodies? As several people have noted, Republicans are not 'pro-life.' They are merely 'pro-birth.' Once the child is born, Republicans for the most part wash their hands of ensuring that both child and mother receive appropriate health care, food, etc. Once the child is born, it isn't their problem any longer. 

I hope the current ongoing attacks on American women serve as a wake-up call for women and the men who care about them. We need to keep up the pressure on these misogynists and make sure to vote them all out of office at the next opportunity.

American women, we cannot return to the 'good ole days' when women wore pearls and high heels to do the housework and 'kept their place' at home, raising the kids, cooking and cleaning.  

We must let it be known that we have, and we demand, the same rights as men. We will not "sit down", we will not be silent, and we will not turn the clock back 50 or more years. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Be A Traveler, Not A Tourist

Recently I was asked to take part in an online interview about women's adventure travel by a well-known travel magazine . As a long-time adventure traveler, my name was put forward by one of the organizations I frequently travel with as an appropriate person to answer a few questions.
I began my adventure travel journey with Country Walkers, a Vermont-based hiking organization, more than 20 years ago. At that time, I met up with a friend from the other side of the country and we went hiking in Glacier National Park. Then we took other hiking trips together, meeting once a year. Then I started finding other places I wanted to visit, and without someone to travel with me (my friend and I had a falling out), I realized I had a choice of either going by myself or staying home. Clearly, staying home wasn't an option for me. Once I retired and my daughter was old enough to be left on her own, my adventure travels really took off. I usually take eight to 10 trips each year, to both domestic and international destinations.

I believe today's women have more financial opportunities to travel than ever, as well as the self-confidence to travel without a male companion. We realize that we can travel and go on adventures with or without a man, or even without a female travel partner. Women are an integral part of the workforce, and although the glass ceiling still limits our upward mobility at the very top, many women now have successful, high-paying careers. I have met numerous attorneys and physicians on my trips, as well as women with lower-paying jobs who nonetheless enjoy an adventure trip every year.

Organizations such as Country Walkers, Backroads and Natural Habitat Adventures, all of which I have traveled with repeatedly, provide us solo women with safe, well-organized adventure travel opportunities. I love to travel to other countries, but I wouldn't feel comfortable going to Turkey, for example, since I don't speak Turkish. But going with two experienced, English-speaking Turkish hiking guides takes away the worry. Even going to countries where many people speak English, I prefer adventure travel with a group so I don't have to worry about the logistics, finding the best places to hike or visit, where to stay, etc. Women have finally come into their own and want to enjoy the same experiences as males, and the numbers seem to prove it..

I was asked what the experience of being a woman on an adventure trip was like. My experience on more than 20 adventure travel trips has been wonderful. I never have had a bad experience. Some places and some guides I like more than others, but I keep going back for more adventures. I have taken 11 trips with Country Walkers, and I have a 12th trip coming up in a couple of months. I recently signed up for my 9th Natural Habitat Adventures trip, and I have traveled with Backroads at least twice, with another trip planned for later this year.

I always feel safe and well cared for with these groups. I appreciate knowing ahead of time what to expect as far as hike difficulty, mileage, etc. On my first overseas trip with CW, I met another American woman who was traveling solo and who was at the same hiking level as I was. We hit it off, stayed in touch, and have returned to Africa together for the past three years. (She can't go this year due to a health issue). Last year, while on a safari in Kenya organized by a London-based travel agency, I had a tentmate from Scotland. Again, we hit it off, and we will be returning to Kenya this summer, along with a British couple we met during that safari. And we have plans for a trip to Brazil in 2018.

I am an introvert, so sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable at first being with a bunch of people I don't know. But there have always been people who invited me to join them for dinner, or with whom I spent time on the trail, so I usually wasn't alone for long. On one trip three Jewish women took me under their wings. And I have met people who have become friends. I also stay in touch with some of my guides, both domestic and international. 

Solo travel requires a certain amount of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, and a willingness to try new things, meet new people and experience places that may be completely different from what one is used to. It also requires the willingness to be flexible and to 'go with the flow.' I heard an expression during my first trip to Africa that pretty well sums up the experience: "It is what it is." We shouldn't expect things to be just the way they are in the US. Customs differ, the sense of time differs, the food is different. But that's part of the allure. I am hooked on adventure travel, whether I go alone and meet up with a group, or whether I go with a travel partner. 

Had I not gone on any of these trips, I wouldn't have been able to visit Petra or watch elephants swimming in Botswana, or heard an elephant trumpet just a few feet from my tent one night. I have had so many amazing adventures.

I also was asked why I want to go on an adventure trip rather than just on a vacation. For me, regular vacations are pretty boring. I don't enjoy visiting museums or looking at art or sitting on a beach. I am not one to 'sleep in' even if I could. I don't want to be part of a group of 40+ people. I like a more intimate experience. The camp where I stayed in Kenya last year has just six tents. I want to see new things, have new experiences, explore new places and try different foods. I want to go off the beaten path and be a traveler, not just a tourist. My adventure travels take me most often to places where I can get out of the rat race, enjoy nature and wildlife, and experience things such as river rafting.

I am an active person and I like to be on the move, whether hiking someplace new, going on safari in Africa, or walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. These adventure experiences not only expose me to new and different things in a novel way, but the experiences make wonderful memories. During part of my trip to South Africa last year, our group spent a few hours walking and getting as close as was safe to rhinoceros and elephants. We spent one night sleeping on a raised platform under the stars and hearing the animals at a nearby water hotel. This was a trip for travelers, not for tourists. I don't care about staying in a fancy hotel or going to a spa. Sleeping under the stars and falling asleep to the sounds of Africa is just fine with me.

And as an avid amateur photographer, adventure travel lets me capture things up close and personal. I have some amazing photos of an elephant emerging from the forest in the early morning light, and I have photos of elephants bathed in the golden light of the setting sun reflected in the clouds of dust they stirred up. I have the memories of finally spotting a cheetah family heading out for its evening hunt. I got to watch a family of elephants swimming in Botswana, something I had never seen, much less thought about, before. I saw a Bengal tiger in India carrying off the spotted deer she had just killed early in the morning.

These are adventures. They have opened my mind to a whole new world and made me so much more aware of what is going on in other countries. When I read about the problems of cattle invading the elephant habitat of Lakipia, Kenya, I can relate, because I flew in a helicopter -- with the door open -- over that area. When our helicopter landed on a sand dune in Turkana, Kenya, and we were approached by three AK--47-toting local men, our group leader (who is fluent in their language) was able to communicate with them and then explain to us why they were questioning our presence. One doesn't get this kind of experience from a simple vacation.

As chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern said: "Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you."

For me, adventure travel is the only way to go!