Monday, November 26, 2012

THE DUKE LEMUR CENTER, Durham, North Carolina

Duke Lemur Center, "Tonga Soa" means "Welcome" in Malagasy

A year ago, in November, when we were in North Carolina for Thanksgiving, we did a family outing to the Duke Lemur Center located near Duke University in Durham, NC where a very knowledgeable docent gave us a tour of the facilities and told us more about lemurs than we ever knew before. 
Ring-tailed Lemurs
More than 200 lemurs live at the Duke Lemur Center.  It is the largest group of lemurs outside of Madagascar and is a place where scientists learn about lemurs close-up and study them in ways that would be impossible in nature. 

Prosimians include lemurs, bush babies, and lorises
Lemurs are prosimians that live on the island of Madagascar and the nearby Comora Islands. (The first prosimians lived 55 million years ago.)  Lemurs once lived in every part of the island but now, due to habitat destruction, are found only around the edges.  Wild lemurs often live high in the trees and in remote places and many are active only at night. It is hard to study lemurs where they live in the wild.  The DLC provides the opportunity for scientists to learn more about these unusual and endangered animals.

Sifakas in their Outdoor Enclosure
Most of the lemurs at the DLC live in family groups in buildings with access to both inside and outside facilities.  Each lemur has its own room with a door to an outside cage.  Openings between cages allow the animals to be together or stay alone.  We enjoyed watching the lemurs in their outdoor cages, where they scampered about, seeming to enjoy the bright, sunny day as much as we were.

Map of Madagascar
Many lemurs are nocturnal (which explains why they often have such large eyes.)  At the DLC, the nocturnal animals occupy rooms that are dark during the day with the only light coming from low, red lamps, which has the effect of starlight or moonlight.  Because it is dark, the lemurs move around as they would in the night, which allows scientists to observe their behavior without having to work in the wee hours of the night.  At night, bright lights are turned on in the nocturnal room and the lemurs go to sleep.  When we visited, it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the dark before we could see the animals.

In the warm months (April to October) some of the lemurs are allowed to live in the forest that surrounds the Research Center.  There they explore, climb trees, and hunt for food just as wild lemurs do in Madagascar.  A fence around the 14.3 acre forest allows them plenty of room to roam.  In the forest, scientists observe the lemurs as they move about and interact with one another.  Since we were there in November, all the animals were inside, but if you visit during the summer, there is an option of an outdoor tour.

Tours:  To find out about tours of the Duke Lemur Center and how to make reservations, click here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

PIE on I-5: Food for the Hungry Traveler in California's Central Valley

Apricot Pie from The Apricot Tree
Apple pie, blackberry pie, peach pie--just like mother used to make! Does traveling make you hungry?  Are you always on the lookout for a good place to stop and get a bite to eat?  I frequently travel by car between my home in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Over the years I’ve developed a list of my preferred places to stop for gas, restrooms, and food. Typically I take a picnic lunch, but occasionally I take a break and stop for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee along the way.  More often, though, I prefer to buy a whole pie to take with me, which I then enjoy and share after I arrive at my destination.
     The shortest and fastest route from Los Angeles to northern California is on the I-5 (connecting to the Bay Area via the 580.)  After leaving LA, crossing the mountain range north of the city, and descending the Grapevine into California’s huge Central Valley, most of the trip is through  rich farmland, changing from grazing land, vineyards, vegetables, and cotton in the south, to vast orchards of almonds, citrus, and stone fruit further north. (When the orchards bloom in spring, they are like a sea of pink clouds flanking the freeway.)  The I-5 highway bypasses most towns in the valley so the main choices for stopping for food or gas are at rest stops along the highway.  Here are three of my favorite places to stop for pie.

Traveling from south to north, the first pie stop is at the Willow Ranch restaurant, at the Buttonwillow Exit west of Bakersfield.  This family style restaurant, a favorite with local ranchers, serves hearty meals (you can buy bottles of their famous barbecue sauce at the counter) and offers a variety of fruit pies.  The blackberry pie is especially delicious.

The next opportunity to buy a whole pie is at Harris Ranch, at the approximate half-way point between LA and San Francisco.  It is a large complex with a restaurant, coffee shop, gas, and hotel, but the pies are in the Country Store, where you can also buy gifts and top quality beef, a product of the Harris Ranch cattle.  Most recently, I bought an apple pie here and it was very tasty.

The third pie stop is at the Apricot Tree, located at the Pacheco Road exit about 30 minutes beyond Harris Ranch.  Not surprisingly, they are most famous for their apricot pie, one of my all-time favorites.  The restaurant, which serves family style meals, is decorated with the owner's collection of 1950s children’s school lunchboxes and thermoses, which are mounted along the walls and on the beams over the tables. Update, 3/19/21: Note that the Apricot Tree is no longer in business.

Vintage lunchboxes on display at The Apricot Tree
Whether you want to buy a pie to take to your Thanksgiving dinner, or to enjoy at home, or to celebrate Pi Day (March 14th), all of these places have homemade tasting delicious pies, just like mother used to make.

Monday, November 12, 2012

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Botanical Garden and Veterans Memorial

Flowers in the Royal Botanic Garden, Melbourne, Australia
In honor of Veterans Day, here is an excerpt from my diary of our three-month stay in Melbourne, Australia in 1999.

On Saturday we drove to the Royal Botanic Garden which is on the other side of the city center.  This huge park has extensive walking paths and all sorts of  native and exotic trees and flowers.  We saw several new birds and we are told that this is the place to go to see the fruit bats.  These huge bats, which have wingspans of four feet, apparently love to eat the fruit on all the carefully planted specimen trees and are a bit of a problem.  We were told that you can’t see the bats during the day, so we’ll have to go back sometime at dusk. 

Veterans’ Memorial
Shrine of Remembrance
At one end of the park is a large memorial to the 20,000 soldiers of Victoria who died in World War I.  When you realize that the population of Australia was quite small back then, you can see what an impact this had on the society.  The memorial building is approached on all sides by banks of steep steps, reminiscent of a Mayan temple.  At the top one goes inside to a room where a memorial plaque is embedded in the center of the floor.  The amazing aspect of the building is that it has a small hole in the roof placed exactly so that each year, on November 11, at 11:00 am, a ray of sunlight moves across the plaque, highlighting the word “love.”  During the rest of the year they simulate the light ray once an hour to demonstrate to visitors how it works.  It definitely has a powerful, almost mystical effect.

Floral Clock and Art Museum

Floral Clock, Melbourne Botanical Garden
We then walked to the other end of the park, passing numerous wedding parties having their photos taken, and took our picture in front of the huge floral clock at the park entrance.  Then we crossed the street to visit the Victorian art museum where we did a quick tour of the Australian collection.  The pictures from the 19th century are a fascinating peek into the hardship of pioneer life in Australia as well as a view of the vast, forbidding, but also beautiful, landscape they encountered.  (Note: There is now a new art museum at two sites, one in Southbank and the other at Federation Square.)

Back to the Botanic Garden and the Flying Foxes

Grey-headed Flying Fox (a kind of fruit bat)
A week later we finally got to see the fruit bats in the Botanic Gardens.  There are hundreds of them and you can’t miss them because they make such a racket.  We went late Sunday afternoon and found them hanging from the branches of tall trees in a place called Fern Gully.  It was a hot day so they were fanning themselves with their huge wings and even flying about a bit.  Last week, when the park ranger told me that you couldn’t see the bats until dark, I think that my mistake was asking about bats--I should have asked to see the flying foxes, which is what people call the large fruit bats here.  Those that live in the park are grey-headed flying foxes and have pointed snouts that make them look a little bit like foxes.  The term bats is used here for the little insect eating bats, and those don’t come out until dark.  We found a group that lives in a tree near our apartment and watched them one evening as they emerged from a hole in the trunk and flew off to catch bugs on the golf course.

Monday, November 5, 2012

WATER JOUSTING , Sete, France: Guest Post by Gwen Dandridge

Water Jousting Tournament, Sete, France

My friend Gwen Dandridge sent me this post about the amazing jousting matches in the canals of Sete, France, that she and her husband went to see when they were living in France for several months in 2005.  I had never heard of Sete, and now I want to visit!  Gwen has many talents ranging from fantasy writing to gardening to Morris dancing.  You can find out more about her at her blog.

Gwen's Post:
When my husband and I lived in Montpelier, France, we set out to see all the small events that make France unique. We heard of a contest nearby in Sete that had been running since medieval times and knew that we had to attend.  Sete is a small city on the coast of the Mediterranean. It is an island city in the manner of Venice, but with cars. Waterways divide the city and small 
shops line the canals. But where Venice feels tight with millions of little 
alleyways, Sete feels open and expansive. Each year between late spring and early fall they host a series of water jousting contests.

We traveled to Sete by train, a simple twenty minute ride from Montpelier. The sky was startlingly
 blue and the colors of the town were picture perfect--red and blue and white.
 At a patisserie with gorgeous pastries, we each bought one to try. We found the 
festival with almost no trouble and got a seat on the bleachers to watch the 
show. They have been having this festival for hundreds of years. On the program
 they listed the winners of the joust for each year and the dates went back to 
the 1600’s.

The contest is the following:
 There are two teams, blue and red. Each has a boat with ten rowers and two 
musicians, an oboeist, and a drummer. The dress code is a fisherman-type long 
sleeved tee shirt with stripes, red for the red boat and blue stripes for the 
blue boat. Over that is a white shirt with short sleeves. White pants and white
 shoes complete the outfit.

There is a long ramp at the end of each boat with ladder-like steps. At each of the four 
rungs two men usually sit waiting for their turn to joust. At the top is a
 platform, just big enough for one man to stand braced with feet apart. This lone jouster holds a wooden shield and a long lance with three metal prongs on the end.

The boats turn to face each other.  Then the rowers row as fast as they can toward the
 opponent boat with one guy on each boat standing with his lance. As the boats approach, the jousters 
level their lances at one another (just like in the horseback riding version) and attempt to knock the other into the water. Sometimes they both stay standing, sometimes they both end up in the water, but typically one is knocked off by the other. The guys on the ramps below duck to avoid flailing 
lances and falling jousters. Quickly, another smaller boat (with a motor) 
spins out to drag the waterlogged loser out of the water. The jousting boats return to their respective ends of the canal, circle about, and start over.

Each jouster gets three tries to knock his opponent into the water. 
If he is victorious and doesn’t land in the water, he goes down the ladder and the next person moves up 
to his position. As the people on the rungs finish their contest, a boat putters in and brings in more contestants to sit waiting for their turn “at
 bat” as it were.

It looks sort of “la de da” jolly, until you realize how much momentum is behind each lance. Usually they strike, someone gets knocked off 
balance, shields and lances flailing around, and then maybe one person ends up in the
 water. Once though, the jousters both struck completely straight and true, and 
one guy just flew backwards, fully airborne, before crashing into the water 
below. That day, the guy on Bateau bleu was the one to go flying. Meanwhile a larger band played between the actual jousts.

Josh loved it and would have enjoyed trying it himself, but the training for this starts early in the year and beyond his reach. While I’m sure it would have been cool to see his name on the roster, I was ultimately relieved not to have my husband smacked in the chest with that much force. Perhaps another year.