A little help from some friends

The US/Mexico border has spawned a lot of anguished stories over the past few years, so I’m happy to report that something jolly took place at the very southwestern-most point of the continental United States the other day. Several hundred Americans and Mexicans gathered on the beach where the border meets the Pacific, and we practiced singing a song (the Beatles’s “A Little Help From My Friends”) together. The end result wasn’t the most polished choral effort in history. But surely it must rank among the most offbeat.

Back in early September, Steve and I had learned that ArtPower, the UCSD performing arts series, was sponsoring this special event featuring Choir! Choir! Choir! — a Toronto-based singing group run by two musicians who take the non-traditional approach of including anyone who wants to participate (usually for an admission fee, though the UCSD event was free). They often tour, teaching each audience an arrangement of a well-loved song. This time, however, they would be adding a twist: doing it with folks situated on both sides of the angsty international line.

We signed up immediately and heard the US crowd would be limited to 500; got word some registrants were put on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we learned of a change in plans: state park officials were suddenly demanding that ArtPower submit the names of all registrants in advance. They would not be able to drive into the park on their own but rather would need to be shuttled in from an outside location.

More directives trickled in: we would have to meet at Southwest High School, be checked in, and allow ourselves to be wristbanded. We could bring in no weapons; plastic replicas of weapons; knives of any size; explosives; fireworks; umbrellas; poles or sticks; laser lights or pointers; coolers; containers of any type (except for water bottles); aerosols; mace or pepper spray; camera tripods; sharp objects such as scissors or knitting needles; Leatherman or similar tools; bullhorns or similar “voice-enhancement devices;” noisemakers such as air horns, whistles, or drums; banners, signs, or placards; animals; or backpacks larger then 12x12x20.

Undeterred, Steve, our visiting friend Megan, and I headed for the high school around 1 pm Sunday (October 13). DSC05072.jpgDSC05074.jpgWe checked in, sizing up our fellow singers, a range of ages but mostly white folks who all looked like NPR listeners. Before long, our bus set off southward, and it didn’t take long to reach the park. We disembarked, trying to scope out what the heck we would be doing. In January of 2018, Steve and I attended another cross-border performance. That one was a percussion concert that we watched from the Tijuana side. For it, some of the US musicians were allowed inside “Friendship Park,” that no-man’s-land created inside the double American fencing built in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays it’s only opened for special occasions.

But the inner park was locked.DSC05077.jpg Instead we were directed onto the beach, where we could see a small stage and a sound truck. DSC05079.jpgStern signs, police tape, and an intimidating roll of coiled razor wire prohibited us from approaching the barrier there. DSC05089.jpgBeyond it, a sea of beach umbrellas and people were barely visible. I’m pretty sure there was beer on that side. And tacos. Probably music too.

We, on the other hand, were herded into a metal enclosure, where we waited for the program to begin.DSC05083.jpg Up above  us, armed guards, some with dogs, looked down, stony-faced.DSC05093.jpg “This is kind of interesting,” commented the guy standing next to me. “I’ve been to the beach before. But never in a cage.”

If the setting on our side of the border had some grim elements, the activity, once it got started, included lots of laughs. Daveed Goldman, the Choir! Choir! Choir! director leading the American contingent, is quite a comedian (as well as a competent guitar-player). His cohort who was working the Mexican side, Nobu Adilman, seemed a bit stricter a task master. Both guys wore microphones, so we could hear everything said by each. The Mexican wannabe choraleers yelled and applauded when they were introduced, and of course we responded in turn. (There seemed to be a lot more of them.) We waved our sheets of lyrics at each other in the distance, and that made the fence and the distance between us feel a bit less dreary.

The actual song practice was more serious than I expected. We gringos sang the first lines —What would you think if I sang out of tune? — and the Mexicans sang back in Spanish: Levantarte y marcharte, quizás? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?). We practiced certain sections again and again. At first, the Mexicans’ voices sounded faint and distant, but over the course of the next hour we all grew louder and more confident. By the final run-throughs, I think everyone was singing more or less together. There were nice harmonic flourishes. The final cheers were robust.

From time to time throughout the experience Daveed chastised American participants for holding up their cell phones and recording what was going on. “We are recording all of this for Youtube — and we will do a better job!” he bellowed. “You should be living in the moment.” I’m not sure when the official Choir! Choir! Choir! video will be posted to the group’s Youtube site. When it is, I’ll add a link here. In the meantime, here’s a link to some video shot on the Mexican side of the border. I expect the final Choir! Choir! Choir! product will look more polished than it felt when we were singing it. But I bet it won’t feel as depressing and uplifting and fun as it did in person there.

 

 

Airstreaming in LA

IMG_5412.jpegI can’t say it has always been my dream to sleep in an Airstream, one of those iconic shiny aluminum travel trailers. Still, every time time I notice one out and about, the stylish design tickles me. So when the opportunity arose to experience one on a recent night in greater Los Angeles, I couldn’t resist.

We were going to LA to attend an 8 pm concert at the Hollywood Bowl, meeting our son and his family there. At the moment I am flush, if not with cash, with Guest Points acquired through one of the oldest and largest home-exchanging organizations (homeexchange.com). Looking for options on their site, I spotted the Airstream permanently parked in the Burbank backyard of a couple, Eva and Lars, and their four children. It “cost” only 150 Guest Points and looked charming, in the photos. And it appeared to be only a skip and a jump from the family’s quiet neighborhood to Hollywood. Steve was skeptical, but he acquiesced. I set up the exchange (of the points for the one-night stay), and last Saturday morning, we packed small bags and headed north.

First we stopped at the newly renovated Beverly Center mall in Beverly Hills, where I wanted to visit the large outpost of Uniqlo (the Japanese clothing maker whose casual wear several friends have raved about, but which I had never seen first-hand since the chain has no stores south of Orange County). The mall felt a bit like a spaceship, and the Uniqlo was very interesting. I bought a few $15 t-shirts made of a high-tech material that supposedly heats up any moisture you emit to keep you warmer. We’ll see how that works.

But then we had to hustle on to Burbank, which felt like it was about three times farther from Hollywood in reality than it had been in my head. Eva and Lars greeted us and showed us the trailer. If anything, it felt more attractive than it looked online, being surrounded by a nicely landscaped backyard and sitting area. IMG_5411.jpegRestored to pristine condition, the interior seemed roomy enough, and when we slept on it later that night, the queen-size bed was surprisingly comfortable.IMG_5414.jpeg Still, I can now report that spending the night in a nice, clean Airstream felt pretty indistinguishable (to me) from spending the night in any nice, clean garden-variety trailer. I’ll probably continue to admire the zoomy exterior design whenever I see one, but I won’t be shopping for an Airstream of my own any time soon.

If that aspect of the weekend proved underwhelming, the other main elements exceeded expectation. To avoid the hellish traffic and parking nightmares around the Hollywood Bowl, we drove our van to the North Hollywood Metro station and parked on the street nearby. Then we rode the metro two stops to Hollywood and Highland, walked the mile or so to the Bowl, and dined on the picnic dinner we had packed and carried with us. The transit part all took more than an hour, but doing it by car would have taken at least as long and been much more stressful.

Furthermore the people-watching on the metro and the walk through Hollywood was unsurpassed, as it was inside the Bowl (which neither Steve nor I had ever seen, in all our years of living in Southern California.) Genial and head-spinningly multicultural, the huge crowd seemed to be in a great mood. IMG_5415.jpeg

The program featured the music of “Game of Thrones,” performed by the show’s original orchestra and directed by composer Ramin Djawadi. Once the concert got underway, we were blown away both by the sound and beautiful setting. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back for another concert, but (unlike the Airstream Experience), I would like to.IMG_5419.jpeg

By the time we tumbled into bed (around midnight), it felt like we’d surveyed a broad swathe of LA Life. But the next morning we got more when we left Eva and Lars’ place and drove to MacArthur Park, hoping to participate in the “Heart of LA” CicLAvia event taking place from 9 to 4 pm Sunday. Inspired by a venerable bicycling event that began decades ago in Bogotá, Colombia, LA versions of it began 9 years ago and have since attracted more than a million and a half people. The idea is to close key streets in a given area and turn them over to pedestrians, bikers, and other folks on wheels (skates, boards, pedicabs, and more) for use as a public park throughout the better part of a day. I participated in one several years ago in San Clemente, but I’d never done one of the LA versions.

One problem was: we couldn’t bring our bikes (because we knew we would be transporting our son and his family and their luggage back to San Diego). But a savvy friend had alerted us to the Smart Metro Bike program that’s part of the LA metro system. I’ll confess Steve and I were skeptical we could find two of those bikes and get access to it. But after very few minor hassles, we succeeded!

IMG_5427.jpeg
Total cost of renting two of them for almost two hours: $10.50.

We biked from the park down 7th Street to the heart of downtown, then turned onto Broadway, passing iconic gems like the Bradbury Building and Clifton’s Cafeteria and the LA Times Building as well as monstrous new public edifices such as the police department headquarters. We took the arm of the route that headed southeast, skirting Little Tokyo and crossing the marvelous 4th Street Bridge over the railway lines. IMG_5428.jpegSadly, we ran out of time and had to turn back before making it to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. We missed altogether the arm that went to Chinatown.

If we’d had the whole day, we could have easily spent it stopping to view the art and architecture along the route, listening to music, eating at many dozens of options. We didn’t. But it makes me happy to know it’s not that far away. We can go back.

 

 

 

Eclipsed

082217 eclipse1

I saw my first total solar eclipse on a hilltop in Germany 18 years ago. It took place on Steve’s 50th birthday. Months earlier, when I had heard that the two events would coincide, I had worked to arrange a house (and car) trade with a family in Bavaria, and on the big day, Steve and Michael and Elliot (then 14 and 10) and I piled into the Bauer’s little Ford and headed out, seeking a viewing site. It was a stormy day, and we had a wild time, trying to find clearer skies and a well-situated town from which to witness the spectacle. We found a town but had a terrible time parking. Still, we managed to work our way to a spot within the throng that had gathered to watch the sun disappearing between the passing storm clouds. The clouds parted right before the astronomical climax, and my family’s shouts of amazement and gasps of pleasure joined in the general chorus.

It felt electrifying, and when it was over, I vowed to travel to every other total solar eclipse viewable on the planet in my lifetime. That impulse was sincere but impractical, and my resolve was short-lived. Total eclipses aren’t that infrequent, but they’re far-flung and expensive to get to. I hadn’t made it to a single additional one when I heard about the coast-to-coast extravaganza that would take place in the United States on August 21st this year. That fired me up again.

It occurred to me that if I used our frequent-flier miles to transport us home from Europe to Portland, instead of San Diego, we could snag inexpensive tickets home to San Diego the day after the eclipse. Also, I have a niece who lives in Portland, a city I’d never visited. So we set eclipse-viewing plans in motion.

We refined them a bit in the late spring and early summer. Our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie decided to fly in from Reno to join us. We also began to rethink my original plan for where to view the event. Portland was just outside the zone of totality, and I knew that clear skies on the Oregon coast were not a sure thing. At first I reasoned that, if necessary, we could get up early and drive over the mountains to the hot, dry side of the state. But in June we began to hear stories about the huge crowds that would be flooding in. Authorities warned about the need to stockpile food and fuel and even water. Envisioning the nightmare of being stuck in a massive traffic jam on a small road through the Cascades, we resigned ourselves to accepting whatever the weather gods delivered for Salem (well within the totality zone and only a 75-minute freeway drive from Shannon and Jimmy’s house). As Steve and I traveled in Europe over the past few weeks, I sneaked peeks now and then at the upcoming Salem weather; mostly I found jolly yellow balls predicting sun, but at other times, partial clouds were forecast. That was depressing; by the time we landed in Portland Saturday night, I had decided to just stop thinking about it.

Sunday the skies in Portland teased us — clear part of the day but obscured by light clouds and haze at other times. The prediction for Monday in Salem, however, continued to be a bright yellow ball. When we walked outside around 5 am on Monday morning, Venus, shone brightly, almost directly overhead.

We started driving south at 5:30 and hit patches of traffic. Despite it, we reached Salem under azure skies by 7:15 — three solid hours before Totality. While driving, we’d read online that a huge eclipse party would be taking place at the state fairgrounds — but the tickets were all sold out. Another recommended spot, however, was a park not far from the center of town. We headed there.

Now that I’ve experienced two total eclipses, I have a pretty clear idea of my dream viewing spot for any future ones. It’s on a hilltop crowded with festive fellow eclipse-watchers, some playing guitars and clapping as the color drains almost imperceptibly from the landscape. The sweeping view of the surrounding countryside offers the chance of sensing the shadow of the moon streaking toward one at 1800 miles an hour, in the last fraction of a second before the sky turns black.

Our park in Salem wasn’t quite like that. It was flat, encompassing a couple of huge grassy meadows, but signs warned visitors against walking out on them. Instead people strolled in and arranged folding chairs or picnic blankets along the edges of the open areas. They chatted quietly within their little groups, relaxed as holiday-goers soaking up rays on a beach. I whooped loudly when, a little after 9, my eclipse glasses revealed the first small bite out of the disk, but if anyone else cheered, I didn’t hear them.

082217 eclipse2
Not exactly a mob scene.
082217 eclipse3
The shape of the sun, reduced by the moon to a slim crescent, captured through the pinholes cameras created by the tree leaves.

Tension built only slowly. By 9:40, the four of us agreed that the light had shifted into some subtly otherworldly spectrum: colder, weaker. Stephanie noticed that the chirr of insects was growing louder. By 10, a portly older man dragged his wife up the embankment next to us to show her a patch of the pavement where sunlight was filtering through the leaves. He couldn’t resist coming up to us to ask if we too had noticed the splatter of crescent shapes: the shape of the sun’s image projected on the ground. We hadn’t and thanked him for sharing the insight.

 

More people around us rose to their feet; more voiced comments addressed at large. Anticipation coiled us tighter and tighter as the light grew more surreal with every passing second.

Then it happened. Better writers than me have commented that the difference between experiencing any partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between riding in an airplane and falling out of an airplane. Or like the difference between seeing a lightning bug and seeing lightning. At the instant that the moon obliterates the sun, people shout, cry out. Tears sprang into Stephanie’s eyes. I know I screamed. Steve, more level-headed, was trying to capture it on his phone. Here’s what he recorded starting just before totality:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/230680395″>Eclipse 2017</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25079241″>Jeannette De Wyze</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

It lasted only a bit over two minutes. Then we gathered our things and straggled out of the park and slogged through almost four hours of horrific traffic, back to Portland. But we talked about those two minutes, off and on, the rest of the day and evening.

There’s another total eclipse coming in 2023 and another one in South America the following year. I’m wiser now, I’ve already put them on my calendar.

The bonobos of Texas

Steve and I are mad at American Airlines. We’ve been frequent fliers with them for almost three decades, and our loyalty has enabled us to fly free to countless destinations, both domestic and abroad. But in recent years, it’s become harder and harder to use our miles to go where we want. The most recent example is my effort to use miles to get us to Europe for Paul-Louis’s wedding.

I started trying to find passage back in late December, but all I saw were flights that required us to fly through London’s Heathrow Airport. The problem with this routing is that Heathrow charges hundreds of dollars per passenger in taxes. In contrast, if we fly direct from a US airport to Paris, we pay only about $11 per person.

But the only choice the new (mean and stingy) American Airlines was offering me was to fly from San Diego to Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport one day, then continue on to Paris at 5:50 pm the next day. Repulsive as this choice was, I booked it.

I hoped that eventually better flights would become available (ones that wouldn’t require the Texas sleepover.) At one point, I was checking the AA website two or three times daily. But nothing opened up. Then one day it occurred to me that I had a good reason to spend a day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area: Ft. Worth is one of the only zoos in the US that includes bonobos in its collection!

In recent years, I’ve become a fan of bonobos — our highly endangered primate cousins, so much more likable than chimpanzees. (We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both.) Matriarchal in their social organization, bonobos are far more peaceful and sexy in their social interactions. This spring I wrote a cover story for the Reader about the colony at the San Diego Zoo — the first place bonobos were brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, and the place where the vast majority of groundbreaking research has occurred.

That reporting was a great experience, and it whetted my appetite to see the other bonobos in captivity in America. The Ft. Worth Zoo is one. So Friday after taking our flight to DFW, we rented an inexpensive car, slept at a cheap hotel, then set out Saturday morning for Ft. Worth (about 30 minutes west of the airport.)

It was instructive. Admission to the Ft. Worth institution only cost $24 for the two of us. (I think it’s close to $100 in San Diego.) Although the temperature was in the high 80s (and headed to the high 90s), the zoo was pleasant, shaded by mature trees.

It’s much smaller than the San Diego Zoo, and it seems much more fearless about promoting its ape collection. The great ape compound was highlighted at the entrance, where the Texans boasted that their primate center includes “all the great apes” — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos (who are mentioned by name. In contrast, for reasons that never were clear to me, the San Diego Zoo seems intent on almost hiding its bonobo collection.)

Despite the weird reticence of the San Diegans, I can now tell you this: if you want to have a close encounter with one of our closest animal relatives on the planet, the San Diego Zoo is a better place to do it than Ft. Worth. In San Diego, the bonobos enjoy a huge enclosure, and there are three or four windows into it that enable a lot of up close and personal interaction with these charming animals. We saw six bonobos at the Ft. Worth facility. Two were in an indoor enclosure, the size of which made me cringe. Steve had to remind me that the alternative for bonobos (living wild and free in the Congo) carries the constant risk of being killed and smoked by poachers.

In the Ft. Worth Zoo’s outdoor viewing area, we were able to catch a glimpse of four more bonobos (two females adults, one male, and a baby). Then, to my delight, the mother and baby moved right next to the only viewing window, near where we were standing.

.
The baby looked very young — less than a year? The mother settled into the corner near the glass, and the baby began nursing. We were inches away, albeit viewing all this through scratched, milky windows that made it hard to take good pictures. The baby sucked at one of its mother’s breasts. It moved to the other side and gazed at its mother adoringly, but also periodically focused its attention on Steve and me. We stared back. I tried to communicate some sense of solidarity with the pair, to project my respect and admiration.

I don’t think they got it. But I’m still glad we went.

Is France Too Boring to Blog About?

If there had been blogs back in 1974, and if I had been writing about my travels back then, I would have rapturously recounted my first trip to Paris. Everything on that trip was new and thrilling. Every day introduced me to things that charmed me. Steve and I loved it all so much we’ve broken our travel rule for France; we haven’t been able to resist returning. We did our first-ever home-exchange in Paris in 1990, and we’ve gone back on many other occasions.

We’ve never been to the south of France however. We wanted to go there some day but never, ever in August — the month when hordes of French people leave behind Paris, despite the sky-high temperatures that are common in the south then. But we’re about to start such a journey. What changed our minds was an invitation to a wedding in Avignon. The groom is the son of one of our closest and longest-tenured friends. Olivia and I were pregnant at the same time, and Paul-Louis traveled from Paris to San Diego to spend a month with us when he was only 10. Both his (younger) sisters followed suit. This feels in many ways like a family wedding.

I’ve never been interested in blogging just to report my location. I like sharing interesting things I’m learning. Also recounting adventures. I think this trip may not be jam-packed with either of those experiences, so I’m going to be restrained in what I write about. But I also don’t expect to be completely off the radar.

(Our new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards give us free access to a number of airport lounges. We tried out two of them at DFW, where we had a five-hour wait before our plane to Paris boarded, The “Minute Suites” option was kind of interesting: a very small private room with a work desk, wifi, and space to stretch out and snooze. Much nicer than the public gates!)

My kind of lama

Steve and I had never seen the Dalai Lama in person, so when someone offered us tickets to his appearance on the UCSD campus yesterday, we couldn’t resist. In Tibet, which we visited not once but twice over the last 18 months, you can be thrown in jail for having his picture on your cell phone. Many Tibetans consider him a living god. Even if he’s not divine (and he says he isn’t), he indisputably was the ruler of the country until fleeing into exile in advance of the Chinese occupation. He’ll turn 82 this year, and we didn’t want to miss the chance to see him while he’s still on the planet.

Our tickets said the event would start at 9 a.m, and they warned that everyone would have to go through strict security checks. So shortly after 8:30, we took our place among the thousands of folks lined up to have their bags and backpacks inspected and their water bottles emptied. 061717 DL1

At a certain point, I noticed that the couple in front of me was eying a small group of monks milling off to the side of the crowds queuing up to be inspected. Eventually, I realized that they seemed to think one of those monks was the Dalai Lama himself — a notion I dismissed as ridiculous. But the man was persistent. “We should go over and ask,” he declared. He looked at me. “Will you guys hold our place in line?”

“Go for it!” I encouraged them, thinking they’d soon be back, embarrassed by their error.

Minutes passed, and they returned — exultant.

“Yup,” they confirmed. “We shook his hand and thanked him for being here. He was great!”

Stunned, I slipped out of line myself and inched close to the monks.

 

061717 DL2

I felt too shy to try for a selfie or otherwise intrude on his holiness. But comparing the man 15 feet away from me with the picture of the Dalai Lama on my ticket, the two indeed looked identical. And the gesture matched even better the Buddhist leader’s mischievous sense of humor. What could be more fun than to slip out and turn your back on the huge apparatus of Security — guards and metal detectors and searches and tedious lines — and hang out with the folks?

A moment later he slipped away, to meet with the press and finally (around 10) get up before a crowd that may have exceeded 20,000. His speech was good. But I appreciated his actions even more.