22 June 2011

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

Have you ever seen 1.5 million bats take flight?

I have.  

It happens around dusk in downtown Austin.  From March through October, as the sun sets behind us, they come streaming out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

If you sit under the bridge to watch you might get the occasional little sprinkle of guano on you.
Considered yourself warned.

And it goes on pretty consistently like this for like 15 to 20 minutes.  Squeaking, wheeling columns of bats just pouring out. Great big clouds of massed bats, heading off in an easterly direction, as far as the eye can see. Though our photos and videos hardly do it justice, you gotta trust me, it's jaw dropping y'all.


16 June 2011

Summer Road Trip (Part One)

With the lacrosse season ended, and our ants-in-the-pants wanderlust in full gear, the Mrs. and I hopped in the Buttercream Bruiser and pointed the truck towards Florida.

Our first stop was the Big Easy where our rock star niece Julia was celebrating her trusty sidekick Josette's birthday. We arrived around 10pm and headed out to the Treme' neighborhood. 

The neighborhood has received a lot of attention since the HBO series "Treme'" hit the airwaves, but it has always been an center of African-American and Creole culture in New Orleans....and, of course, the brass band tradition.

It was a late, fun-filled night....which we regretted the next morning when we had to hit the road for the 650 mile, 11 hour drive to Tampa.

It felt like the longest day ever........ever......ever.

We stayed in a hotel just outside Tampa so we would be fresh for the next day.

We swung by and picked up Tina Beena and Florida Shirl...then on to one of our favorite places on Planet Earth..

The Miramar!

Ahhh the Miramar Beach Resort. Our traditional gathering place in Florida where every year we get to hang out with all of our old West Florida friends, relax, laugh, eat, laugh, drink, laugh and laugh.

3 days of bliss. No worries, no stress, no tasks, nothing to do at all. Just hanging out.

Just catching up with family and friends. It is the good life....and it was my birthday.

Daytime party turns to nighttime party...which turns to daytime party....repeat.

As usual....it was fantastic. It is my favorite weekend of the year.

Alas, all good things must come to an end...and off we went to our next destination....

St Augustine for my Mom's birthday!

My eternally youthful mother and her family have a secret to longevity. Buttercream and Cannoli Filling.

My Moms custom made birthday cake weighed approximately 5 pounds and had 4 inches of Buttercream topping. It is so absurd and profane, I don't even know what to make of it. I thought all cakes were like this until as a child I was over a friends house and they brought out some bullshit spongecake.

Look at this freakin' cake!

I ate one small slice and I felt like I had swallowed a phone book...a New York City phone book...but..who am I to argue with my mother's family traditions? The cake was oh so delicious and only 3000 calories a slice!

After just one night with the family, we were off again....next stop South Carolina!

We stopped by old friends Darren and Erin's house in Sumter, where Darren is currently stationed with the Air Force. Unfortunately he is in Afghanistan...but we met two people we have never met before (its been a long time)

Cole & Eric

Sigh...we haven't seen our friends in so long, they have kids running around, walking and talking...and jumping...and wrestling...and swimming. They are very active and funny. I had a blast with them, like making them clean up their toys.

Erin, the hostest with mostest, made us a delicious dinner. She is quite simply the best cook I have ever met. (disclaimer: except my wife and mother....whew that was close)

It was really, really great catching up. We even got a chance to skype with Darren in Afghanistan!

The next day we all went to lunch, but then we had to hit the road again...next stop, visiting Joe & Michelle in NC.

Unfortunately, we didn't take many pictures in Fayetteville...but I can describe what they would look like.

Picture 1: Dinner made by Michelle. Breaded and Pan-Fried Pork Chops, Gravy, Rice, Cabbage and Cornbread...this picture would either be of me hugging the stove where she made it or of a small pile of bones that Joe had sucked clean. He is a one man wrecking crew who literally doesnt leave a speck of food on his plate or any bones.

Picture 2: Two black people pissed off and confused wondering how two suburban white people kicked the living shit out of them at Spades. (Black people think they own the game...not true sir!)

In 1988, a 17yr old Army Private (Me) got to his first duty station in Germany and was paired up with a "seasoned" 21 year old Specialist (Joe) who was to "show him the ropes". We took a picture shortly after of Joe and I standing in front of our Humvee...I still have that picture somewhere in storage. 23 years later, we took this picture.

It was great night hanging out with  old friends....but the next day, we were off again!

Next stop......Charlotte! (stay tuned)

14 June 2011

Summer Road Trip Highlight #1

Watching my niece Julia Haltigan and her band The Hooligans perform at 11th Street Bar, NYC.
It's a regular gig, Tuesday nights, 10pm sharp.
You should go.


p.s. my amazing big brother Emmet is back there in the shadows somewhere, a card-carrying member of the band and a real live, dyed-in-the-wool rock star.  I'd post him wailing on the harmonica on a different song, but he's shy.  I might do it anyway.

06 June 2011

I Never Met a Gorilla I Didn't Like

Planning for my African adventure I knew there'd be a lot of choices to make. I could game drive the Serengeti, sky dive over the Namib desert or scuba dive in Zanzibar. I could visit a cheetah sanctuary, an elephant orphanage, an island haven for at-risk chimps or volunteer for good causes from Uganda to Zimbabwe.  Reading about all the possibilities had my pulse racing and my head spinning.  I couldn't even decide what to pack for a three month trip, how could I possibly decide what I wanted to do before I even got there?!  Fortunately I didn't have to, with one exception....

One activity that needed some advance preparation. Something I had to sign up for ASAP. One immediate decision necessary. There was a substantial fee and a permit application that could take months to get approved. Luckily this one decision was a no-brainer. The activity?  

Hiking in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda to find a family of wild highland mountain gorillas
 and hang out with them for one whole glorious hour.

Obviously my decision was yes.  Yes! Yes! Yes!

It was a highlight on a trip full of highlights.

The day started at the crack of ridiculous.  We piled into jeeps that picked us up from our campsite in Ruhengeri and drove us to the edge of the Parc de Volcanoes.  From there we sat and waited while the guides organized us into groups, and then assigned each group a specific family of gorillas.  Don't mind admitting that I was a little intimidated by the surrounding peaks. Spent the wait-time praying to the travel gods that my group would be one of the ones to find gorillas after an hour of hiking and not one that took eight hours to reach the same goal.

Each gorilla family has a group of trackers that spend nearly every daylight hour observing them.  As the gorillas begin to make a nest for the night, the trackers go home.  At dawn they wake up, return to where they left the gorillas the previous night, then track and locate them.  From there, it's the same as the day before. Follow, track and observe the gorillas until they make another, different nightly nest.  Coolest job ever?

Every day, one group of eight people is allowed to observe one family for one hour and one hour only.  So while the gorillas are completely wild, living in their natural habitat and following the natural daily rhythms of life, they are accustomed to seeing humans.  The permit money we visitors pay not only enables this self-perpetuating system of tourism, but more importantly, keeps the professional guides and trackers in the area which protects the gorillas from poachers.

The idea is to hike in the general direction of the deep-trackers who observe the family and meet up with them before we reach the gorillas.  There we leave anything we've brought with us.  Water bottles, knapsacks, hats and sunglasses, walking sticks and camera bags all get dropped in a pile.  You are allowed to bring only yourself and your camera to the gorillas.

The vegetation was crazy thick.  Sometimes bamboo jungle, sometimes big trees.  Lots of dense undergrowth and so many nettles we all returned covered in welts.  The hike was steep at times, and often the guides had to hack a path with their machetes. This was some serious bushwhacking, y'all.

Before the hike, Charles, our head guide, had demonstrated a few gorilla grunts for us.  One meaning "Hey what's up?"  The next being "It's all cool" and another saying "Back off man!"   He also explained that it was bamboo shoot season and that bamboo shoots were like beer to gorillas.  I couldn't quite figure out if that meant we'd be hearing more of grunt number one, two or three but it added a little zest to the hunt.  What's more fun than wild gorillas?  Drunk wild gorillas!!

After meeting up with the deep-trackers we all roamed and ranged up the hillside, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the stinging nettles.  We had been told to wear long pants and long sleeves, but none of our clothes were made of sturdy enough material to protect us.  Charles, his two dudes and the four trackers all letting out the occasional "Hey what's up?" grunt.  They were on high alert.  All of us were.  Some serious adrenaline was flowing.  We knew the gorillas were close.  We could hear the foliage moving and twigs snapping.

And then suddenly we were surround by them.  Sometimes this close!!!  Brushing past us!  When I saw one headed our way, I didn't know what to do. No guide was close enough to signal to.  Do I move out of the way? Scream? Run? Fall down? Freeze? Beat my chest? My heart was certainly beating hard enough.

There was fear but more than anything else, awe.  I surprised myself by getting all emotional.  A lump in the throat, fighting back tears.  It was incredibly weird.  I just couldn't believe I was lucky enough to be right there. Doing what I was doing, seeing what I was seeing.  The gorilla family felt like one big, hairy gift. They took my breath away and scared the crap outta me all in one go.  Surreal.

We were told beforehand to try and keep a distance of three meters, but that's a tough task when the group is constantly moving. Foraging and digging, settling down for five minutes to root out some shoots and chew them up then moving on in different directions.  For the most part they ignored us.

I think there were eight adults in our family, plus a couple babies.  They move in a loose group.  Leap-frogging their way up and down the sloping hillside.  Always a family unit, but never quite cohesive.  They don't seem to be communicating to each other much...

...except when a few laid down for a cuddle together or a couple of juveniles wrestled for a while.  They seem to be operating independently, each after his or her own food, not caring what the rest of the clan is up to.  But after a while you realize though they may be twenty feet or more from each other, they are all completely aware of the family.  It may be shuffling and disorganized, one ambles to the left while another tumbles off to the right, but they all still manage to stay together in a loose knit grouping.

Mamas and babies are, of course, always together.

But other than that they seem barely aware of each other. And even less curious about us.  Surely it's the mighty silverback who leads, but it was hard to tell even after an hour of observation who was taking cues from whom.  They all moved haphazardly and we did the same.  I'm fairly certain the whole hour's worth of time took place in the world's largest bed of stinging nettles, but once the gorillas showed up I forgot about that discomfort altogether.  The guides were pushing and pulling us gently, either to get us out of the way of a moving gorilla or to help us get a better photo.  The foot was treacherous and the ground never flat, and it was a challenge to keep moving all the time.  I felt about as graceful as a hippo in a tutu.  You could stop and stand straight and still and just listen while swiveling your head and you'd see and hear gorillas moving, laying down, feeding and just generally doing their gorilla thing in all directions.  Have I used the word AWE yet?

I feel like I am only talking in superlatives when remembering my Africa trip.  That maybe I am in danger of overstating everything to the point where no one will take me seriously,  But I can think of no better description for this morning with gorillas - it was simply one of the coolest things I have done in my life.


p.s. As in many of my Africa posts, some of the photos are mine, others borrowed from my fellow travelers.