Monday, January 28, 2013

GETTY MUSEUM, Los Angeles: An Outdoor View

Recently, on a stormy fall day, we decided to take our visiting relatives to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, figuring that on a rainy day, it would be the perfect inside activity.  But when we got there, after parking in the underground garage and then riding the monorail to the top of the hill, we discovered that the rain had stopped, leaving everything sparkling and filling the sky with dramatic after-the-storm clouds, so we decided to explore the gardens and outdoor parts of the museum before going inside.

The architecture and the gardens of the Getty are worth a visit just in themselves.The buildings, designed by architect Richard Meier, are of travertine from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy and glow with reflected light. Each wall has a subtle texture, and if you look carefully, you can see the fossils of leaves, feathers and branches embedded in the stone.
After stopping for a cup of coffee from an outdoor stand, and admiring the colorful fall leaves overhead, we went to an overlook to enjoy the vista.  The air was so clear we could see all the way to the Palos Verdes peninsula to the south and far out in the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Then we wound our way along the cascading “creek” to the lower garden, where the water ends up in a pond that is also a visual maze. The gardens around the maze are largely filled with drought tolerant plants, perfect for the southern California climate.
Inside the museum we only had time to see a few exhibits.  We chose to view the 19th and 20th century European paintings, which included various Impressionist paintings and other familiar works.

Our final stop was the exhibit of Ray K. Metzker photographs with their wonderful contrasts and patterns.  This exhibit closes February 24th, 2013. On our way out. Art took his own Metzker--style photo of a random figure silhouetted against the wet marble pavement of the central courtyard of the museum.  It was a fitting end to an inspiring afternoon at the Getty.

For information about visiting the Getty go to .

Monday, January 21, 2013

BULLFIGHTING IN SOUTHERN FRANCE: The Course Comarge, Guest Post by Gwen Dandridge

Bull Fighting in Marsillargues, France
My friend Gwen Dandridge sent me this post about the amazing bull fights typical of the southern France Comargue region, which she and her husband went to see when they were living in Montpelier for several months in 2005. (Unlike Spanish bull fighting, the bulls survive.)  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:
After getting settled in Montpelier, we tried to figure out where the bullfighting was held. Every time I asked, people would say “You just drive out and find the signs.” I would object that I didn’t know where to drive, what time, or what to look for. My follow-up questions of “where do you get the tickets”, “who do I call to order them”, fell into the American/French cultural translation abyss. Finally, one of the grad students at the institute where my husband and I were working took pity on me and tracked down the schedule for the Course Comargue.

Thus directed, Josh and I drove out to a small town named Marsillargues near Lunel.  Once there, it took us a bit to locate the arena, which had been set it up behind the local church. We parked on the street and went in to see the show. All became clear why my questions were unanswered. These are small local entertainments. Each little village has its own event and in the smaller towns an arena is thrown up just for the day. You can’t order tickets online. Some of these events are even free.

The arena was set up with a three-foot high wooden barrier. A small lip was at the bottom of the barrier, just wide enough to get a foot on. Beyond that was a six-seven foot wide corridor and finally the bleachers, four or five feet high with metal guard rails rising up another three feet. 

The process went as follows: first a man comes out and hoses the arena to keep the dust down.  Then other men come out all dressed in white, six with their names in black lettering on their backs and two with red lettering. Soon after, a single bull is released into the ring. On their horns were cockcades, ribbon-like things. The object of the game was for the men to run up to the bull, remove the cockades using a special comb-like tool attached to their hands, and avoid getting gored. The one with the most cockcades is ‘the winner’ but I think the real winner is anyone who doesn’t have to ask his girlfriend what kind of bleach to use to get blood out of the clothes.


The bull would enter, circle the area, paw the ground and bellow threats to the audience. The game would start with the men running close enough to the bull to get it to charge them, but not so close as to make contact. At first, the men maintained a respectful distance from the bull. The bull would be furious, making quick rushes at the men. The men would run diagonally across the bull’s path and then hop over the fence to safety. The way the men escaped was to run to the fence, place a foot on the lip and leap up with the next foot to the top of the wall and then fling themselves like a flying squirrel across the six-foot corridor to the bleacher railing. This worked great unless the bull chose to follow them, and many, many of them did.

Some bulls liked jumping this fence and would just jump over, leave the arena, and refuse to be coaxed back in. One bull was so determined to get the person escaping that it flew over the barrier like it wasn’t even there and barreled headfirst into the wall with a very loud crash and surprised many people! The barrier is supposed to at least slow the bull down. This bull didn’t seem to notice that it had just about knocked itself silly. Several bulls tried to imitate the flying over the barrier routine, but not quite as successfully, sometimes catching their hind feet on the railing and tumbling over the barrier; in one case a bull landed upside down on the other side, unhurt but even angrier than before.

One of the bulls caught on to the game early and refused to play. He would jump out of the arena and stay in the corridor on the outside. The men then spent vast amounts of time trying to coax, tease, or insist that he join them in the ring. One time, they got him cornered so he could go nowhere but through the gate and the bull lost it. He was so frustrated he bashed his horns against the gate over and over. Another bull wasn’t quite as clever but would also jump out. The men would maneuver him into the arena and slam the gate.  He would turn and stare at the closed gate before attacking the annoying men. This happened to him six or seven times. Jump the fence, get jockeyed back to the gate (white handkerchiefs waving at him were the favorite taunt) walk through the gate, the gate slams, and he turns and watches it.

Anyway, it was great fun. After some chasing, the bull would get tired, his cockcades all removed, and he would be allowed to return behind the gate. Sometimes, of course, the bull would refuse to exit (I’m sure feeling, “it can’t be over yet- I haven’t killed any of them”) and a steer with a large bell would be sent out. The bull was delighted to see some critter that looked familiar.  The people behind the scenes would then call the steer back and the bull would trot after him. They did this seven times with seven bulls. Everyone survived. Yeah!!!
We left the arena and looked for our car. Oddly, people were lining the narrow (read very, very narrow) street where we had left our car and our car was gone. Then, down the street came a parade. The horses came first. Six of them, white, as all Camargue horses are, in a tight “V” formation, body against body. Someone screamed and many people leapt backwards, including me. Seven men came hanging tightly onto a very large black bull, dragging it and them down the street. Not the kind of thing we see in America!

Oh, our car was towed.  Normally, that street was okay parking, but not that day. That day, the road was reserved for the bull. And the locals knew better then to challenge him. We were able to retrieve our car and the police were very nice about it, but it did cost us more than the admission to the Course Camargue.
You can read more about Comargue bull fighting here

Monday, January 14, 2013

XIAN, CHINA: Ancient Capital with Terracotta Soldiers and More

Ancient City Gates, Xian, China
This is a look at a trip from the past, China in 1995, when we visited Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian.  Although many things have changed in China since then, the terracotta soldiers in Xian remain one of China’s most memorable sights.  Here is my diary account of our visit in the summer of 1995, beginning with our flight to Xian from Beijing.

I had a window seat on the plane.  It was a clear day.  We crossed a low mountain range and then flew over a broad plain of brown fields.  When we emerged from the airport in Xian, it was like walking into an oven– 100 degrees Fahrenheit and no humidity.  The airport is an hour’s drive from the city.  We passed endless flat fields punctuated by grave markers of ancient emperors.
Our hotel, the Jinjiang, was next to the zoo on the northeast side of the city.  For supper we ate at a Chinese restaurant in the hotel where a woman was playing a zither-like instrument.  In the morning, we had a Western style breakfast.  The dining room was filled with a busload of Swedish folk dancers on tour.
Terracotta Soldiers, Xian, China from the Qin Dynasty, 3rd Century BC
We left at 8:30 for the terracotta warriors–located about 30 km outside the city.  They had been discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well.  The weather was overcast and somewhat cooler than the day before.  Because of construction on the main road, we drove along a bumpy narrow road through pomegranate groves and got to the museum by the back way.  At the site (flanked by numerous souvenir stands) there were three main buildings–#1 with the vast army; #2 where archeologists were currently digging (not included on our tour); and #3 which showed a partially excavated site.  Although photos are strictly forbidden, one could pay 150 yuan (about 20 dollars) to be photographed in front of the soldiers so we did one group photo that was delivered to our hotel that night. One can also purchase photos.  Our last stop was a museum of weapons (still razor sharp because of their advanced knowledge of metallurgy) and miniature 3-D displays of how the terracotta figures were made. 

Museum model showing how terracotta figures were painted
After lunch we drove to the Banpo museum to see the excavation of a Neolithic village 5000 years old.  While we were at the museum it started to rain (although only for 10-15 minutes), cooling the air somewhat.  The whole region was suffering from drought.  Most fields around Xian were bare and one quarter of the city was virtually without water.  Our guide was staying in the hotel because he had no water at home in which to bathe.

Weaving Silk Rugs, Xian, China
 We then went to a jade “factory” cum souvenir shop where we watched women making silk rugs.  After that we proceeded to the Provincial Museum, a huge modern structure filled with sculptures, ceramics, and other historical items. The following morning we visited the old city gate and wall, where we climbed to the top for the view.  Buildings on top of the gate had been used to house the garrison guarding the entrance to the city.  (The city walls date from the time Xian was the capital city of China, between the sixth to tenth centuries AD.)  To enter the city one had to go through one gate to an inner courtyard and then another gate to the city.  If an enemy came through the first door, the gate could be closed and soldiers could shoot down on them from the walls above.  The watch towers along the wall were set to be an arrow’s shot distance apart.  A moat also surrounded the city.

Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian, China
We then went to the Wild Goose pagoda, another Buddhist temple, and after that to a lacquer factory.  We then had lunch and headed for the airport.  We had had a full two days in the ancient capital.

Note: Since our visit to Xian in 1995 we’ve seen two excellent traveling exhibitions of the Terracotta soldiers at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.  I’d love to go back to China someday and see them again in their original home.

Monday, January 7, 2013

ANZA BORREGO STATE PARK, California: Desert Wildlife and More

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it was not until I moved to California as an adult that I had any extended contact with the desert. At first I couldn't imagine that anything could possibly live in such a barren, alien land. But as I began to visit the desert at different times of year--in summer when the heat is so intense it almost takes your breath away, in winter when snow blankets the surrounding mountain peaks, and in spring when the profusion of flowering plants make the desert seem like a garden--I grew to love the desert.

View from the deck of the Visitor Center, Anza Borrego State Park
One of my favorite places to go is Anza Borrego State Park in southern California, about three hours from my home in Los Angeles.  It is the largest state park in California.  I always make a point to stop at the visitor center with its beautiful cactus garden and wide angle view across the landscape.

The tiny town of Borrego Springs sits in the middle of the park, but for miles around the land is wild and full of desert plants and wildlife.  It is a great place to hike and, in the spring, to look for wildflowers.  After rainy winters carpets of tiny blooms cover the desert floor.  The beavertail, barrel and chollo cactus sprout blooms at their tips.  And the tall ocotillo plants burst with brilliant orange flowers.   Springtime is also the perfect time for birdwatching as hummingbirds hover over blooming flowers, cactus wrens and orioles bring food to their babies, and roadrunners race across the path.
Beavertail Cactus

Several years ago I wrote a book for children, WATCHING DESERT WILDLIFE, about my fascination with the way living things have adapted to the lack of water and extreme temperatures of the desert. Art and I traveled to deserts throughout the West to photograph and research the book. I loved getting up early to catch the sunrise--one of the best times for photography and also for watching wildlife. Footprints in the sand showed where nighttime animals had walked and with luck we knew we might see some of these creatures before they settled down for the day. We often saw coyotes on their way back to their daytime lairs and we listened to birds singing their early morning songs. My role on these excursions was to look for wildlife and also to be a photographer's assistant. In one case, as I backed away from one of our subjects I inadvertently stepped on a cactus!  It took several days to get all the spines out of my foot!

Lizard basking in the sun
If you are lucky, you might see some desert bighorn sheep (the borregos after which the park is named) while you are in the park. I have seen them on several visits.
For information about visiting the park, click here.