Monday, August 21, 2017

Summer Snippets ‘17

Las Etnias I
It is the middle of August and, in the words of my sister-in-law, it’s an epic summer complete with a solar eclipse. It is hot and sunny. Dry and delightful. Relaxed and contented. My feelings of happiness stem from the fact that, among other things, I became a grandma in early June. My summer started in Brazil in March and is continuing unabated five months later. I floated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I’ve been eating blueberries out of my garden for almost 2 months. All of these things contribute but there is more. Despite the chaos and madness affecting much of our government and our nation and the world, my personal life is peaceful. My large extended family is thriving and, in my late sixties, I am fit and healthy.

Museu da Amanhâ, Rio de Janeiro
Going back in time to the beginning of my “long” summer, on our last Sunday in Rio, we took the Metro to the Museu da Amanhã [Museum of Tomorrow]. It is a an impressive building set at a dizzying angle – an Avant Garde projectile made of hard, white geometric lace. A Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava – a man who is described as one who sees what doesn’t yet exist – designed the museum. Inside are displays, pictures, videos and explanations of all the changes we, the people of the world, have made to our global home… reducing the coral reefs, the ice caps, the forests; mining the earth’s minerals and fossil fuels and taking its water without regard for the future; creating towns and garbage dumps (sometimes landfills) and highways that grow and grow and grow; writing poems and compelling stories; painting marvelous paintings and building fantastic buildings; making sculptures and movies so beautiful they take our breath away. The museum is an open classroom that invites us in and asks us what we want. Can we choose our future, not out of ignorance but with full knowledge? Who knows the answer to this intriguing question?

Las Etnias II
After pondering what we’d seen and feeling sobered by the changes humans have wrought on the planet, we left the museum. We wandered down a nearby promenade that abuts the museum along the water of Guanabara Bay.  The area is home to multiple old warehouses. It was cleaned up and renovated to welcome folks who attended the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Now it is a public space replete with food trucks and shaded picnic tables. We were hungry. It was past lunchtime. In short order we were eating delicious linguisa and ice-cold beer. Afterwards, we walked further down the promenade to see Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra’s gigantic murals, Las Etnias or The Ethnicities. The murals are huge, about 50 feet high and depict five faces from five different continents. I am a fan of street art (not graffiti) and these paintings are extraordinary. They show us some of the multiple races and types of people that enrich our world – a legacy that many of us celebrate and embrace. The murals are well worth a visit if you are in Rio.

About six weeks after returning home to the United States, my husband and I had the privilege of visiting a unique, largely undisturbed ecosystem that, through the efforts of the U.S. Park Service is protected. Through what some folks would have you believe is a bad thing, i.e., government regulation, this place, the Grand Canyon is as spectacular today as it has been for millennia. Its undisturbed beauty is in stark contrast to the destruction of other natural phenomena, such as the Great Barrier Reef that the exhibits at Museu da Amanhã described. 

Paris in Vegas
To get to the Grand Canyon, we flew to the live-wire city of Las Vegas, joining a group of family and friends in the middle of June. The next day, our group left Las Vegas at 5 am to spend eight days floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. After driving for about 3 hours through a desert landscape, we reached the Colorado River. There we boarded a 15-person pontoon boat owned and operated skillfully by the Grand Canyon Expeditions Company out of Kanab, Utah. I recommend this excellent company.

Leaving Lee's Ferry on the Colorado
We disembarked at Lee’s Ferry, immediately below the Glen Canyon Dam. Our guide, Art, was a man of many talents – a superb boatman; a geologist; an anthropologist; a chef; and an all-round delightful person. He guided our boat through world-class rapids. He read us Edward Abbey poetry. He prepared yummy gourmet meals three times a day working on camp stoves pitched on sand bars. He told us stories about the Native Americans who have lived in the Canyon for thousands of years and stories about the billion years of rock formations that are missing from the Canyon walls. He
led us up seemingly impassible slot canyons and showed us how to slide on our butts down calcium carbonate filled sky blue rapids. He showed us pictographs and wild flowers that only opened at night, majestic big horn sheep and magnificent Condors floating high above us in the brilliant azure sky. Every night we slept beside the river. We watched the mile-high canyon walls turn into a vivid light show as the setting sun transformed multi-hued layers of rock into deep shades of umber, orange and gold. Together we bonded and experienced one of the world’s most amazing ecosystems. They call the Grand Canyon grand for a reason – its glory is in its sheer size; its beauty; its ancient history; its rainbow of colors, diversity of flora and fauna and its stunning rock formations. Put a visit to the Grand Canyon on your bucket list – and don’t just go to the rim. If you possibly can, make arrangements to float down the river. It is the best way to experience the depth and richness of the Canyon.

Climbing into a slot canyon

The trip was extra special for us as it followed closely on the wondrous birth of our first grandchild. Although my husband and I are the lucky parents of two grown children, the birth of our grandson seemed like a miracle. The coincidence of his birth and the sheer magnificence of the natural world that the Grand Canyon revealed made me feel deeply grateful to be alive.

Now, in August, we are back in Seattle and spending time babysitting the little boy – experiencing his first smiles and his loving energy. Our garden is growing crazy – full of flowers, apples, blueberries, greens, peppers and tomatoes galore. As I’ve said before, I’m not a natural born gardener, but the habit is growing on me now that I have more time in retirement. The benefits of growing food are obvious. In the evening we harvest a multitude of different types of greens and mix them together for an evening salad. Because we have so many blueberries this year, we’ve invented a new salad. We call it the blue and blue: mixed garden greens; blue cheese (Point Reyes Blue is a favorite); freshly picked blueberries and light balsamic vinaigrette. Try it. Simple and delicious.
Flowers in my garden

Jeff and I are continuing circuit training at our local Y – often hitting the gym at 7 am. I never imagined when I retired that I would look forward to getting up at 6 am to work out. Interestingly, our class is populated mostly by other folks in their sixties and seventies who, like us, value regular intense workouts. Workouts that include intense aerobic activity, weight training and stretching are very important as you get older since, without targeted effort, you lose strength and flexibility as you age. That loss has negative impacts on the quality of your life. I don’t believe I could have participated in the Grand Canyon hikes and rock scrambles if I had not developed the physical skills I have at the Y.  I’ve been pleased to find that when Jeff and I go out to catch crabs, I can easily lift a large bucket full of salt water into the boat. Last year I had to limit the amount of water in the bucket since its weight was beyond my capacity. Now, after a year of consistent training, I am stronger!  There is every reason to stay in shape as you age – how else would you get enough water for the crabs to cook in? I’m looking forward to being able to carry my grandson when he gets bigger without hurting my back. Take some time to exercise and enjoy the rest of your summer.
Canyon Art coutesy of Jeff Richey

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rooted in Rio – Copacabana Beach and Sitio Burle Marx

Looking at the water feature from the porch of Roberto Burle Marx' home
Living in Rio includes rituals that I love. I do many of these same things when I’m home in Seattle but here in Rio I’m doing them in a tropical haze. It won’t be hard to figure out which ones are a bit different in the city of Rio.

·      Shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at the outdoor markets, the feiras.
·      Walking along Copacabana beach with its famous black and white sidewalk.
·      Saturday morning workouts on the beach.
·      Drinking caipirinhas at the beach Friday night at sunset.
·      Biking around the lake (Lagoa) and stopping for a coco verde.
·      Sweeping fine sand off the kitchen floor.

The city is vibrant, full of energy and excitement. There are many difficult issues in Rio including (often) dysfunctional politics and endless economic and social challenges – but that could be said of almost anywhere in the world, including my home country. As a retired foreigner, who can afford to live in Rio for a month or more every year since I retired, I feel welcome and very much at home.

Posto 1, Copacabana, Rio
One of my (and my husband’s) favorite activities is participating in a circuit training class on Copacabana Beach on Saturday mornings. If you want to get, and stay in shape, circuit training is a very good option – the class here (bhappFIT), and the one we take in Seattle at our local YMCA, include aerobic, strength and flexibility training. Most of all, it’s fun. It is especially fun in bare feet in the sand. Here is my poem about our class and being on the beach last Saturday:

A Day on the Beach         

It’s a day on the beach
The sun beats down
Hot and burning,
The sizzle of the sand
Sears the soles of my feet.

We arrive at Posto 1
It is 9:30 in the morning.
Under the shade of the trees
Last night’s sleepers
Lie wrapped in a final dream.

We stretch and bend
Rub sunblock on our white flesh
The professor, Bruno arrives
He is, as ever, energized
“Na hora,” he says. “Na hora.”

The class begins.
The whistle blows
And the music blares,
We are three men, twelve women,
One young boy with his mom.

We race through the circuit
Weights fall in the sand
We move sweating, in duplo
Run, squat, lunge; run, squat, lunge.
We plunge in one for all.

First round; second round
Sweat, water, drink,
We do it all again.
Then, we’re done; it’s picture time
We jump together and wave goodbye.

Later we’re back on the beach
In bikini and board shorts
Now it’s 2 in the afternoon
The wind blows the heat away
The sand clings, the beer cools.

“I love this song, baby”
Squalls from the vendor’s boom box
I look up at the towering rock,
Silhouetted against the sky
And dig my toes into the fine white sand.

Plant nursery at Burle Marx Sitio
We are not spending all our time on the beach. My husband is working at the Federal University and I’m writing and editing. Sometimes we do take a day out to explore landmarks. Yesterday was such a day – we had the opportunity to visit the former home of Roberto Burle Marx, the Burle Marx Sitio. The Sitio is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Roberto Burle Marx was a brilliant Brazilian landscape architect (1909-1994) whose vision of built landscapes influenced public and private gardens in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. The Sitio, located in Barra de Guaratiba, about an hour’s drive west of the city of Rio de Janeiro, is a public museum and center for the study of landscaping, botany and conservation. There are places that Burle Marx designed that are more well known including Copacabana Beach with its sinuous mosaics and groves of palms, and Rio’s Flamengo Park, but the Sitio is extraordinary. Its hilly 40-acre landscape, more than three thousand tropical plants, water features and beautiful architecture made me feel that I was seeing through the eyes of a genius. I rarely use such superlatives but the Sitio deserves them. Visits are by reservation only and the guided walking tour takes about two hours. 

Plants growing in the nursey

Our group of five including my husband and three friends (one American and two Cariocans/natives of Rio) joined a group of four, another Cariocan, two American women and one French man. In Portuguese, English and French we learned about Burle Marx’ life and his passion for native plants, botanical design and art. Burle Marx was also a talented artist, architect and art collector. These aspects of the man are well represented at the Sitio.

Grasses and roots

One of his greatest talents was the ability to create real landscape paintings (I mean made of dirt, plants, water, stone, etc., i.e., not a painting on a canvas but in the ground). He did this by massing single species of plants of varying colors, textures, heights and shapes across an area, often interspersing the plantings with a constructed focal point – a stone column, a piece of sculpture, a staircase, a cobblestone path. 

Everywhere we walked our eyes were riveted. The Sitio reminded me of an adage of Japanese gardens – there is no front and no back to the garden; the garden should be equally beautiful regardless of the angle from which you view it. This is more than true at the Burle Marx Sitio. We walked for more than a mile in a broad circle, covering hills and valleys, essentially seeing parts of the same garden from across its 360-degree perspective. 

Burle Marx' porch 
During the tour, we visited four of the buildings on site including his hacienda-style home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired outdoor barbeque venue (a churrascaria in Brazil), an 18th century chapel that he maintained and allowed use by local residents and a reconstructed 17th century building (with the stones taken from a building that was being destroyed in the center of Rio). Burle Marx had hoped to use this latter building as his atelier, a quiet and open studio in which to continue his work. 

Burle Marx' would-be Atelier

Unfortunately he died of cancer at the age of 84 just as the building was completed. The Sitio is an inspiration to anyone who likes seeing gardens integrated with beautiful buildings. The sheer exuberance of the place, its plants and the diversity of colors fills your heart and your mind. 

We left the Sitio and stopped for lunch at a nearby hilltop restaurant where the view across a coastal preserve was as much a feast as the delicious moqueca (traditional Brazilian fish stew). We ended the afternoon with a drive home along the coastline, past pretty white beaches and high surf rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean. Jeff and I didn’t go to circuit training last night. We walked along the Copacabana beach and enjoyed Burle Marx’ gift to the people of Rio. It was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Connecting in Today's World - Rio and Singapore Biennale

A Rio Landmark: Pão de Açucar
(Sugar Loaf Mountain)
There are days when the complexity of our connected world is beyond my ability to manage with any efficiency, let alone patience. This past Tuesday was one of those days. I spent much of the morning dealing with renewal of various registrations tied my Brazilian cellular telephone. These renewals were required since my 2016 Brazilian cell phone number expired during the months I was out of the country. I had to get a new one. Consequently everything that was tied to my old number had to be re-initiated. Then, via email, I asked friends in Washington state – my permanent home – to facilitate getting connected to a newly installed fiber optic system serving my home there. All of these undertakings were straight forward but time consuming. We’ve all been there dealing with some aspect of our connected society – hanging on the phone explaining to customer service the problem and getting it solved; waiting in line at the local cable service center; going into online help forums to try and understand why a particular action didn’t effect the expected response.

Twenty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or fiber optic systems. Now many of us are spending hours managing these new technologies – all intended to keep us connected. Whew. That is the down side. The upside is that I can email my sister who lives in England and hear back within hours, send loved ones birthday wishes via Facebook and other social media and receive pictures on iCloud from family and friends all over the world. Those are the good things and I’m glad for them. Why should administrative hassles annoy me? I can’t remember what the pre-Internet administrative hassles were but I am sure they were equally annoying. For sure we were not able to exchange photographs and commentary within minutes across continents before the Internet and cell phones were invented. We depended on expensive long distance phone calls and “snail mail” letters that could take weeks and even months to arrive. I guess I just expect it all to work!

Assembing for a Bloco (Carnaval Street Parade) in Lapa, Rio
Jeff and I arrived in Rio last Thursday for our annual sabbatical in Brazil. When we arrived, it was a few days after Carnaval officially ended. The city was still in party mode. On Saturday, Jeff and I joined a friend at a morning bloco – that is a community street parade with dancing and music. It was great fun to see the different costumes and dance with the crowd along the parade route. Once again I was reminded that keeping up regular exercise is worthwhile so that when an opportunity to dance in a street parade comes along I am ready! Of course in my American life there are not that many occasions when dancing in the street for a few hours is an option. We had great fun – me dressed as a hippie complete with a tie-dyed dress and my husband in an Egyptian headdress. We weren’t the only senior citizens having fun. We saw all ages and all manner of hilarious outfits – one of the perennial favorites is men dressed up as women. My first experience at a Brazilian Carnaval was almost thirty years ago. Someone told me that the key to remember about costumes, or fantasias as they are called in Portuguese, is “The men dress as women and the women take off their clothes.” Perhaps this blanket statement is a bit of an exaggeration but it is still quite apt.

It is more than a month since we left another tropical city, Singapore. During our last week there we visited the Singapore Biennale – a biennale is a large-scale contemporary art exhibit that occurs every two years. In the short time we were back in the United States, I didn’t have the chance to write about this wonderful exhibit. Now I will.
The Great East Indiaman by David Chan, Singapore
Raffles landing in an Imaginary Schooner powered by a Mythical Whale
The 2016 Singapore Biennale showcased diverse art works by 60 Asian artists representing nations from Pakistan to Japan and from northern China to the most southern island nations. It was hosted by the Singapore Art Museum. Like the Bienal de São Paulo that I visited in 2014 (see my blog about it at

Gate by Do Ho Suh, South Korea
A ghostly memory of a lost home
the Singapore Biennale was an eye-opening window on the emotions and visions of the artists and their nations. Many of the pieces (artists from South Korea and Indonesia for example) evinced a longing for home and nostalgia for what the artist perceived to be a more stable past. Others were delightful, even fanciful expressions of the joy of living or remembrance of historical events. What I like about visiting art museums is that the exhibits always show me something that changes the way I see the world. Sometimes it is just a moment of self-reflection or a sense of happiness at seeing something of pleasing to the eye. Sometimes a painting, a sculpture or a mixed media installation sticks with me, influencing my thinking and ability to understand the world around me. If you are ever in a city that is hosting a biennale my advice is go – you will experience paintings, sculptures, collages and other contemporary art forms that open your mind to the beauty and the challenges of our diverse world. I am posting just two examples of what we saw – hoping to tempt you into visiting a modern art museum next time you have the chance. We are so inundated with Internet distributed forms of video entertainment that I think we miss out experiencing art forms that do not adapt so easily to Internet distribution. Okay off my soapbox. I guess I am just a nut for broadening horizons and besides who doesn’t love to visit an art museum?

The Singapore River at dusk
It is interesting to compare the two tropical cities we’ve lived in this year, Rio and Singapore. Rio is known for its samba and beaches while Singapore is known for its strict behavioral standards, its efficient infrastructure and cleanliness. Without question the overall standard of living is higher in Singapore but Singapore is a tightly controlled independent city nation whereas Rio is the historical center of a large, sprawling and complex democracy. Despite the differences, both cities are great places to walk in – both are full of public parks and interesting architecture. Curiously both Rio and Singapore have good public transportation systems. Buses are abundant and cheap in Rio and the subway system is greatly upgraded since the Rio Olympics. While it does not reach as extensively into the neighborhoods as the city-wide system in Singapore does, Rio’s new lines and new train cars are clean, fast and remarkably similar to those in Singapore. There are of course more differences between the two cities than similarities. One that interests me as a former water engineer is the surface water drainage canals in Rio and Singapore. In Singapore, the Singapore River, that drains and flows through the center of town, is almost drinking water standard but in Rio, the big drainage canals that run from the inland Lagoa (lake) to the Atlantic Ocean are quite polluted. After rainfalls in Singapore there is little trash in the river but here in Rio rain flushes out endless forms of trash, particularly plastic bottles and bags. Singapore gets “bad marks” internationally for being so strict about littering. It is illegal to litter in Singapore whereas in Rio, despite many street trash cans, littering seems like the norm. When you see the difference in the water quality of runoff and in the amount of trash on the streets the idea of no littering becomes appealing. But for now the sun is shining and I’m thinking about going out to get some of my daily 10,000 steps in.
The pedestrian path along Copacabana

There may be a little trash here and there on the streets but Rio is a marvelous city. I’m going to walk in Copacabana, along Avenida Atlântica and take my new cellular phone with me – just in case I decide to explore a new neighborhood. Who doesn’t appreciate the fact that the whole world is mapped and those maps are available at the touch of your cell phone screen. I guess spending some time hassling with the administrative part of modern technology is not a bad tradeoff.