Monday, December 26, 2011

Muir Woods: California's Tallest Trees

 What is taller than the Statue of Liberty, weighs more than a big ship, and is the world’s tallest living thing?  The answer: the coast redwood tree.  Reaching heights of more than 350 feet, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is taller than any other living plant. (The actual tallest tree, named Hyperion, in a remote forest in northern California, is 379.1 feet tall.)  The largest redwood trees, some of which began growing more than 2000 years ago,  are also some of Earth’s oldest living things.  One of the best places to see redwoods is in Muir Woods, a National Monument in Marin County, California, just a 45 minute drive from San Francisco.  Last December (2010), when we were in the Bay Area, we did an excursion to Muir Woods with our family.
I have been to Muir Woods many times, but I am always awed by the towering grandeur of the trees, which seem to go up, and up, and up, and are impossible to capture in a single photo.  The damp wintry weather on the day of our visit lent a forest primeval sense to the air.  And, despite the mass of cars in the parking lot, once we started walking on the trails marked through the park, it did not seem crowded by people.
Muir Woods is home not only to redwoods, but a wide variety of other plants and wildlife.  On the day we visited, everyone was excited because, for the first time in several years, the salmon had returned to the creek to spawn.  (Once hatched, salmon spend their adult life in the ocean, only returning to their home creek to mate and lay eggs.)  As we stood on the bridge over Muir Creek and gazed into the shallow water, we could see the slippery fish churning their way upstream. 
You have to look closely to see the salmon in the water
Entrance fees: The entrance fee to enter the park is $5 for adults and free for children under 15.  However, a number of days in the year are free.  Or, if you have a National Park Pass, as I do, everyone in your group is free.

Getting there:  Muir Woods is located 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Take Highway 101 to the Highway 1/ Stinson Beach Exit. Follow the signs to Muir Woods. Roads to the park are steep and winding. Vehicles over 35 feet long are prohibited. Parking space is very limited and fills quickly on most days. There are no RV parking facilities. For an interactive map, please visit and type in Muir Woods National Monument. (My advice:  On weekends and in summer, you may have to park up to a half a mile away, so it is best to drop off your passengers at the entrance so everyone doesn't have to walk from where you park your car.)

Book about the redwoods: For a wonderful children’s book about redwood trees, packed full of facts and illustrated with an imaginative twist, go to Redwoods by Jason Chin.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Creches from Around the World

Gourd Creche from Chile
Over the years my family has collected a variety of Christmas creches from all over the world.  Some of been souvenirs of our travel, others have been gifts, and some we have purchased at museum gift shops.  We get them out each holiday season and are reminded of all the different cultures that celebrate Christmas.  I'd like to share a few of them and send you best wishes for a VERY HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON!
Knitted Creche from Chile
West African Nativity Figures

Haitian Nativity
Corn Husk Nativity from Mexico
Tin Nativity from Mexico
Ceramic Nativity from Mexico
Swedish cast iron Nativity
Russian Nesting Doll Nativity

Monday, December 12, 2011

Humboldt County: Redwoods, Seashore, and California History

Sunset from Trinidad, Humboldt County, California
Vast forests, miles of beaches, rushing rivers, and abundant wildlife are some of the reasons I love going to Humboldt County.   Every two years, in October, I participate in the Humboldt County Author Festival, and usually stay one or two extra days to spend time with friends and enjoy the beautiful scenery.  This year, unlike some others, we were blessed with perfect weather, allowing us to enjoy the full glory of fall, culminating on the last night of the festival with a spectacular sunset over the ocean.
To read about my school visits and activities during the festival, go to my October 26, 2011post in my Art and Books blog.  Here are some of the other things I enjoyed during my stay.
Humboldt Marina.  Tsumanis are always a potential danger along the Pacific Coast.
On the day I arrived, after lunch at the CafĂ© Marina overlooking the docks of Humboldt Bay in Eureka, I drove with a friend out to the Samoa Dunes recreation area.  Although this beach is designated as an off road vehicle area, it was midweek, and luckily for us there was almost nobody else there and the beach was empty except for us and the birds.  As we walked along the shoreline, flocks of perky sanderlings (a type of sandpiper), ran along the edge of the water searching for tiny crabs and other food in order to refuel before resuming their migration south.   Further up the shore, hungry vultures perched on a log near a rotting seal carcass.
Flock of Sanderlings on Samoa Beach
Earlier in the day, on our way to the dunes we had stopped to view the Fisherman Memorial on Woodley Island and marker honoring men who have been lost at sea.  Fishing has always been a major industry in the area, so the opportunities to eat good seafood in Humboldt County are plentiful. For dinner we ate an excellent dinner at the Waterfront Restaurant in Eureka where they served the best crab cakes I’ve had in a long time.
View of Ferndale from Russ Park
Farming and logging are other major industries in Humboldt County.  (Eighty percent of the county’s 2.3 million acres is forest.)  When the festival was over, I went to visit friends in Ferndale, a charming small town with a Victorian main street, about 25 miles from Eureka surrounded by verdant pastures and contented Jersey cows that produce prize winning milk and cheese.  In Russ Park at the edge of town we hiked to the top of the forest trail where we had a wonderful view of the valley and coast below.
Redwood grove, Rohner Park, Fortuna.  Note stump surrounded by new growth.
The next day we went on another hike, through a patch of preserved redwood forest in Rohner Park in the nearby town of Fortuna.  Humboldt County is famous for its redwood trees, which can be seen in various parks, and along the Avenue of the Giants in the southern part of the county.  I never cease to be amazed at the size of the trees.  As we walked through the forest at Rohner Park, watching the light filter down through the canopy onto the open forest floor, it truly felt as if we were in nature’s cathedral.

Book about the redwoods: For a wonderful children’s book about redwood trees, packed full of facts and illustrated with an imaginative twist, go to Redwoods by Jason Chin.

Monday, December 5, 2011

India: Around the World in 50 Days with Sara Kras, Fall 2011 (Guest Post)

My friend Sara Kras and her husband went on an amazing journey this fall, circling the world with stops in the Middle East, India, China and the Pacific.  I think you will enjoy reading the reports of her adventures!  Sara is a children’s book author with books about animals and world cultures and geography.  Find out more at .

India is a kaleidoscope of color and sensation. We arrived at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi early in the morning. When entering the hotel, a wonderful smell permeated the air of pleasant flowers. This hotel was one of my favorites. It is like staying in a palace with many beautiful museum pieces such as huge silver mirrors and desks. The walls are adorned with art from the colonial period. The rooms are filled with marble and large wood pieces.

For my first lunch, I ordered an Indian chicken dish. On the side were some onions, cucumbers, and a single green bean, which I thought was strange. I ate the entire green bean and within minutes my entire mouth was on fire. I felt like I was hyperventilating and the room started to spin. After fifteen minutes of trying to shove anything into my mouth to stop the burning, it started to calm down. That was no ordinary green bean. It was a hot chili pepper! A common one used in India. Welcome to India!

We didn’t spend much time in Delhi as we were using it as a hub. However while doing a bit of sightseeing, I saw a man with two monkeys on a leash. He was walking them just like you would walk a dog. As we traveled, I found monkeys were everywhere in India. They scampered up temple walls. They ran through villages where children threw things at them to make them go away. They sat by the roadside. Sometimes baby monkeys rolled and played in the road. One man had trained a monkey at a regular stop for drivers. When our driver stopped, the man came next to our window and had his monkey put on a show. The monkey flipped, bowed and even tipped his make-believe hat. We gave the man 50 rupees.

From Delhi we flew to Jaipur, which is in the province of Rajasthan, the land of the Rajas. We visited the Amber Palace and the City Palace. Both were filled with opulent rooms and courtyards. At the City Palace an entrance way had been painted as a colorful peacock with a head above the doorway. In the Amber Palace, a covered outdoor area had been decorated with convex mirrors. You could use your imagination of how this room looked in the days of the Maharajas. Torches were lit and dancing girls filled the area. Colors whirled and fire sparkled in the room.

When we arrived at Amber Palace the entire front entrance, about one mile, was lined with elephants with tourists riding to the top. I had declined this as I had read the elephants there were treated poorly. Once we got into the palace there were hawkers and snake charmers. I sat on the ground next to snake charmer. He told me to put on a weird looking hat and blow in a dirty looking wooden flute. I told him no for both. The last thing I needed was lice in my hair or a bizarre bacteria from the flute.
I also went into a temple located at the palace. Inside you are supposed to ring a bell which sparks the energy of the god in the temple. I was the only white tourist in the temple, but still I gave the bell a good solid ring.

In Jaipur we stayed at the Samode Haveli which is a palace converted into a hotel. The original Raja family still owns the property and stay on the top floor. I felt like an Indian princess as our room had a soaring ceiling. The entire suite was made of marble. It had a narrow walkway behind our bed with windows looking on the back courtyard. There was a wider longer hallway which had an antique desk and wardrobe. The ceiling going between the rooms was pretty low and Joe kept banging his head. (Yes. A lot of swearing ensued.) I managed to bang my toe pretty bad on the step up between the rooms. Marble is a really hard material! But even so, the room was so unusual. I loved it.

While exploring Jaipur and other parts of India, I saw any type of mode of transportation you can imagine. There were men pushing carts. There were donkeys, horses, and even camels pulling carts. In Jaipur there were also elephants with brightly painted trunks next to the road. Men were riding bicycles, some having a passenger carriage on the back (rickshaw drivers) or a cart on the back with massive loads. There were motorcycles and mopeds. We saw a family of five on one motorcycle. (Of course, no one wears helmets here.) There are tuk tuks filled with passengers. The most we counted was 12 men all squished into one, some hanging off the back. There are cars, vans, commercial trucks, and buses.

All modes of transportation mentioned above are all on the same road! It is total chaos. They love to honk their horn here too. It’s constant. In addition to all this confusion, people are walking through traffic or across traffic. There aren’t crosswalks really.
Many of the cities are also really filthy. They have a sanitation and garbage problem that is very offensive. Pigs and cows wander the streets scrounging through garbage. In some places, raw sewage spills through the ditches near the roads. I saw one dead animal in the ditch left to rot. If you go to India and want to walk around, don’t wear your nice shoes!

There are large slums in every city where homes are made of plastic bags and cardboard. There are quite a few beggars too that pound on your car window and can be very persistent. It is very sad and you want to help everyone. I hate to say this but at some point you just have to tune it out.
Given all the above, India is still an extremely colorful country, especially the women. They dress in bright saris of yellow, orange, and red, sometimes with elaborate beading. I’ve seen women clinging to male motorcyclists in beautiful saris which sparkle as they fly down the road. In the countryside, bright orange saris decorate the fields where women work. Women with yellow saris walk next to the road with large brass pots balanced on their heads. It makes me realize how conservative and boring American women dress (including myself!) The temples can also be quite colorful painted in peach, pink, light blue, and red.

While in Jaipur, we also went to a private elephant camp call Dera Amer. It’s owned and run by a man related to the Maharaja family. I had an elephant experience where you get to bath and paint the elephant. My elephant’s name was Rangmala. I did not get into the water with my elephant which was good given that there where volleyball size elephant droppings floated in the water. However, I did get to give the elephant a good scrub and got splashed when she sprayed water on her back. Her skin was extremely thick with deep crevasses. Bristly hair grew on the top of her head. After scrubbing her, we waited for her to dry. Then I got to paint her trunk with green, yellow, and bright pink colors. Joe and I then rode Rangmala through the forest and back to the main area for dinner. It was truly a unique experience.

We also saw a bhoba perform in Jaipur. They dress in elaborate red outfits and have handlebar moustaches. They play a small instrument like a violin dancing and twirling as they play.
Joe and I visited the Taj Mahal which is extremely beautiful and breathtaking, as you can imagine. The crowd there is similar to Disneyland, packed. We sat and watched the sunset on this romantic tomb. It was completely magical.

While there, two Indian boys asked Joe if they could take their picture with him (probably because of his beard and tattoes). Joe’s first response was “I will if you pay me 10 rupees”. He was joking, of course. But this is something we ran into when taking pictures of locals.
We stayed the Gateway Hotel which is one of the Taj Hotels and had a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal. I got up early the next morning and watched as the Taj Mahal appeared like a specter in the white morning mist.

We then flew to Japalbur (a 2 hour flight) and then drove to our camp 4 hours away at Bandhavgarh National Park where we were almost guaranteed to see a tiger. We spent three nights there and went on five game drives (a total of 15 hours in a jeep on extremely rough road) and there wasn’t one tiger to be seen. Some jeeps did see tiger, but we just couldn’t seem to make one appear. It was extremely frustrating and sad. We were happy to leave. While there we heard that another couple had gone on 8 game drives and hadn’t seen a tiger either. I would say your chances are from 0 to 25% that you will see a tiger. The promotion of this park is misleading.

We are now back in Delhi and preparing for our trip to China. Overall, everyone must come to India. India is one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. It is also one of the new super powers and is extremely busy right now. Their economy is booming and there is an electric buzz in the air.
(Look for Sara's report on China, coming up in January.)