Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas 2022

 

Although I still have a second Bhutan installment to add, we had to drive into the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin, here is our Christmas "letter" to everyone

Christmas letters are like children.  They take a while to nurture, grow, and evolve into something…something that hopefully benefit society or at least amuse the reader.  Whether one went everywhere and did everything OR went no where and did nothing, a good letter is on the presentation and not the substance.  Letters are also all about the annual rite, the tradition and expectation of getting the latter in the mail and the process of doing them.  I, for one, have been neglectful in recent years as life has tended to make me busy.  For this I do apologize.

 I always start the gathering of material for my Christmas letters slowly.  First, we plan a trip shortly after Christmas the previous year which if it ends in a fiasco, can be conveniently excluded for the next Christmas letter.  Take last year for example, we planned a trip to Tucson, a computer glitch occurred, and our flights were cancelled.  We split up the next day in a second attempt to make it to warmer confines.  Some of us made it and well, some of us did NOT.  Then it rained in Tucson and some of us got COVID, but one thing good did come out of that trip.  Being stranded in Chicago brought a welcome bonus. Silja found her missing binoculars lost from the post-Christmas trip the year before in Tyko’s car. Unfortunately, I had bought her a replacement pair for a Christmas gift.

Another tip to a good Christmas letter is to keep it light.  Avoid illness and other maladies that may have plagued you during the year.  We went to two funerals, but no one wants to hear that.  Luckily, in 2022, was generally healthy for the five of us.  I also think it is prudent if one has spent the bulk of the winter in the south to not brag about it.  Most of our friends and family live up north where it is cold and snowy, especially when they will see this letter.  Reminding them that we spent the winter in Florida is just bad form and possibly causing them discomfort.

The adolescence of 2022 began for us in April, we drove north, and went to Scotland and returned in May with just enough time to get to Lauren’s College graduation from Hamline University in St Paul.  There were smiles and shouts all around when she crossed the stage to get her diploma.  Sadly, after three and a half years at Hamline, her cat, Annie did not get her diploma.  Apparently, she was a whisker away, having failed her class on mousing.  Lauren started Dental School at the University of Minnesota this fall.  At one point we had to transport pulled South Dakota teeth to her for practice.  The things one has to do for children.

It was a glorious summer—long, and filled with family and visiting friends, even Camilla from Sweden.  We went to Canada three times.  Silja caught the largest fish, 40 ¾ inch northern pike.  Allwin painted the most on our house.  Tyko drove the farthest to visit from Chicago.  Lauren made the largest sculpture, a ten-foot green dinosaur/ Pok√©mon now in the front yard of the cabin.   There was a lot of creativity during the year.  I wrote books and magazine articles, Silja weaved, and Lauren sculpted.  Allwin made novel enzymes at his PhD program and Tyko, in his 3/4th year medical school in Chicago made diagnoses for many of the patients he was seeing with illness he’d never seen before.

It was a big year for Allwin, too, he graduated from University of Wisconsin with his PhD in Chemistry.   Just because he could, Allwin took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Jena Germany.  He started this fall and will be overseas for two years.  Possibly his inspiration was to avoid painting any more of the house.

It is not like Tyko has not been doing crazy things in the style that seems to be us.  Medical School is a busy time not conducive to whims and fancies (autocorrect wanted for me to write “shims and pansies” but don’t let me get started on autocorrect nor pansies).  His life is like ours was back in the day, lack of sleep, overwhelming material, and a feeling of being so low on the totem pole, you were superfluous, except he is in Chicago.    

It is a vicious rumor that we plan adventures just to have things to be included in our Christmas letters.  These “mock ordeals” of spending a year of “living biblically” by the Jewish rules, dressing up as a dog for the entire year, or eating just McDonald’s food are for others.  Why would someone do a “big year” birding, or go to someplace like Bhutan to see as many phallic paintings and sculptures as they could?  Well, we went to Bhutan last month and never saw anyone doing that.

The year matured into old age for us in Thailand and Bhutan in November.  It was an epic four-week trip.  It was the best of times, and the worst of times, but what was best or worst depended on how you looked at it and when.  It was a trip of learning Buddhist culture, Thai and Bhutanese culture, spicy food, seeing cool birds, and having a nice idyl at a resort in Thailand.  This compared to a near plane crash (well it seemed near at the time), salmonella, a suicide hike to a mountain temple, and 21,000 miles in the air. The memories of salmonella will always be there.  Luckily, the suspicious package we were sitting next to in Tokyo did not do anything but remain suspicious.  I saw a sign at the Calcutta airport along the way that said, “travel like you mean it.”  Why would you travel like you did NOT mean it?  I did not mean to get salmonella, but well, I ate the eggs, and stuff happens.

We came back to Florida, fought jetlag and then, possibly somewhat full of impulsivity, or maybe an illness, we had an offer accepted on a house last week.  The house is a mile from our campsite in Florida, both are north of Tampa in a rather interesting community not unlike the RV park we are in.  NO, we are not selling the RV, nor the lot.  Everyone asks.  We are still going to Big Bend this spring and parking it north of Minneapolis for the summer.  We will also need to build a shed at Enemy Swim Lake this summer, and maybe eventually work on selling our Milbank house.  Tyko graduates from medical school this spring in Chicago as well. There are many things to do next year hopefully providing much to write about next year.    

We are driving north this week.  I’m chasing a bird in Iowa if it is still around (it wasn't).  I have books to pick up in Indiana, and we are going to South Dakota before the great family Christmas shuffle.  Enjoying the holidays is always a process in logistics, weather forecasting, and sleeping in strange beds and cold rooms.  We left the cats behind with Lauren this fall, and we need to get them back to the RV.  It may make a story for a country song…a Volvo full of beef, cats, Christmas presents, and stuff we forgot to take with the RV—title: “Lost in Louisville” or maybe “Crazy in Chattanooga.”  “Vomiting in Vidalia” is the most likely song title as the trip will be full of vomit and gnashing of teeth, hopefully mostly Tiger the cat’s.

I might add, Allwin dedicated his PhD thesis to his great grandmother Lucille Danielson, and this will be the fourth Christmas we are having without her.  We have her meatballs but not her, and it just does not feel right.....a toast to her from me as well with a tear in my eye.  

So, there it is, another Christmas letter.  Merry Christmas from the Clan of Daniel, Olaf, Silja (Sarah), Allwin, Tyko (Seth), and Lauren.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Ultimate Bhutan Adventure Synopsis: Part I

I have just spent 18 days in Bhutan.  We flew out of Paro Airport this morning.  I took 15,500 photos, some of which I still have yet to process.  Along the way, I lost 300 do to a camera mishap.  I lost a $500 teleconverter I've had for a decade.  My legs hurt from Friday's 2000 foot accent to the Tiger's Nest, which also included an extra 760 step decent plus 200 step ascent which had to be repeated coming out.  Along the way my wife ran out of gas and we had to help he amble down the hill on worn out knees.  

I bought a few souvenirs, a local guide to birds and butterflies literally delivered to us through an open window driving past a wide spot on the road to the capital, Thimphu, a rock taken from the mountain yesterday, a book on the Bhutan obsession of the phallus, and a refrigerator magnet with a phallus on it, because, I had to buy something.

The ubiquitous penises of Bhutan 

A penis with teeth and hairy scrotum on the side of a house, have they gone...too far?

There are thousands of photos of them, but I will spare you more

The Divine Madman has an interesting history. The legendary saint, Drupka Kunley, came to Bhutan 500 years ago to expel a demon from Dochula, the same mountain pass we just crossed on the road from Thimphu. The demon took the form of a dog which Kunley trapped in the stupa atop a mound in the form of a woman’s breast, which is now his sacred site of the fertility temple. He struck the demon with his Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom, his penis, and it fell down dead. As he did so he spoke the words Chi Mi, or no dog, and there we have the origin of the name of the temple. The site was blessed by Kunley and in 1499 C.E. the monastery was built in his honor by his cousin Ngawang Choegyel, the 14th Drukpa.

Too be honest, saying anything about Bhutan in between 1000 and 1500 words is impossible.  The place is both glorious and a little sad because of expected "paradise lost" which ALWAYS occurs at such places.  We saw it happen at Grenada 30 years ago and once something it is found, it gets destroyed  Mind you they claim it to be the center of happiness.  The people do seem content, yet with everyone with cellphones, the outside world is just a google search away and with it, the temptation of desire....which is talked about in their Buddhist beliefs as leading to Greed and then Ignorance....but the lure is still there.

I took a picture for a Turkish woman yesterday who had been everywhere and criticized Bhutan for not being "authentic."  Much of the souvenirs offered claim to be authentically Bhutanese, but our bus driver admitted it is all made in Nepal or India, and none of it was authentic but I am not sure that is what the Turkish woman was saying.....maybe it was the new slavish devotion to the tourism trade both helping the country and one leading to its downfall, but alas, she did not explain, nor did I ask her to.

First, let us discuss the bathrooms.  As I mentioned earlier, this was not a trip for sissies.

We had two types of bathrooms.  Impromptu outhouses, a hole dug, a kind of portable sitting device inside a rather small tent (zipper malfunctioned right away) and what I called the "hole and hope room."  The room had a hole, you squatted, hoped you hit the hole and a bucket was nearby for cleaning misses.  Some people did not clean up, and there was never enough water.


Some of the many scenic outhouse locations...........



One location was in the garden in the back yard of Camp Cement discussed earlier.

Bhutan is overrun by dogs, they sleep all day, usually in the road, or come to beg for food, and then bark all night.  Some even have interesting houses.


 At the heart, this was a birding trip, we saw some of the sights

Punakha Dzong, a five hundred year old fort and the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas






We weren't allowed to photograph in the temple

More pictures from the Tiger's Nest.  The group that made it halfway up to the Tea House.  Five of us made it to the overlook on the left, four of us (me included) made it to the Holy sight.


                 

We saw lots of fabulous birds....unfortunately not the best one, the white bellied heron, a bird that will undoubtedly go extinct before I get a second chance.  Why?  Well probably the development of the rivers of source for power which ironically, is sadly sent to India.  If not the damming of the rivers, it is the powerlines.  They have exposed 10 miles of river bed here totally diverting a major river at one place.  Be it the loss of water or the electrical lines connecting to it, the heron is in peril.

We did see Ward's Trogan, my bad picture


our guide Dorgi, got better pictures

My picture bad but at least we saw one.
Yellow billed blue magpie

We had a slew of warblers, quick and hard to identify.

ash throated warbler

Gray hooded warbler

Black rumped magpie arecent split from the Eurasian magpie

blood pheasant

Chestnut tailed minla

This is just a taste of the many birds, we will post another blog shortly with more birds, more sights of our Epic trip to Bhutan

Olaf

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Journey Home



The road to Bhutan, the diminutive Buddhist country in the eastern Himalayas is a long one.  For us, it was flights from Tampa to Houston to Narita-Tokyo and one to Bangkok.  From Bangkok we flew to Bagdogra, India and then to Paro.  We stayed in Bhutan for 18 days.  We saw birds, animals, and say Buddhism in its most living form in my humble opinion.  The trip home was even more brutal.  We left our hotel in Paro at 4AM after a night of obligate cultural immersion at a private home. 

This was a birding trip

We flew to Kalikat (Calcutta), that incredibly smog infested city in India.  We did not deplane, but I did take a picture of an interesting slogan on another plane.  

Which is more interesting, the note on the stairs, "Lets get high together" or the name of the airline, "Ease my Trip"?

Our Bhutan Air Airbus flew on to Bangkok.  We landed at noon and we spent much time in immigration and then found our hotel room at the airport.  Silja and I spent a spa day there, ironing out nearly worthless muscles from our 1600 foot ascent to the Tiger’s Nest, witch was actually a 2000 foot ascent and then a 750 step decent, and 210 step ascent to this important religious and cultural landmark in Bhutan.

We wasted our Thai baht on food and drink, massages, and only spent time with one other member of our tour.  We slept in soft beds.  The Thai Buddhists unlike the Bhutan Buddhists believe that a rock does not make a good pillow nor a board a good bed.  Our flight to Narita Tokyo left at 7 and took five hours.  We flew over the hills of Vietnam, where to many Americans died for nothing 50 years ago.  We flew over Taiwan, and then Okinawa, places possibly of wars future and of wars past.  It was hard to picture Okinawa as almost totally a city save for a mountain and a military base. 

I saw Yonaguchi by air, the mysterious island with so much underwater archeology no one wants to think about it is almost scary to me and educational malpractice.  In another life I would be there as a young man, finding answers to question no one wants to ask.  In two days I had seen Mt Everest and Fugi.

We arrived happily at Narita full of hope….not of life but of Udon Soup.  But things then would take a little diversion.  We did get the soup and it was superb but we were the first to come to our gate and we sat next to an abandoned backpack.  Similar abandoned backpacks in the Tokyo underground subway have killed many people.  To say that this was a suspicious backpack is an understatement. 

I whispered to Silja.  “That could be a bomb. Let’s move.”  Did I warn anyone?  No.  We just moved and actually went to eat our soup.   

By the time we were boarding, we were in a huge line to board fully 60% of the flight was zone 1, we were zone 2 and the plane was late for reasons unclear.  We found ourselves standing next to the cursed backpack, first with one security guard, then a second, pretty soon they were testing it for explosive residue.  It reminded me of Keystone Cops in action.  I was pretty sure that eventually either 1) it would blow or 2) they would evacuate the terminal.  They did 3) board the flight slowly, while security guard number 1 looked in fear. 

The 12 hour flight to Newark was quiet at least.  Our meals were served hurriedly, and we only had one beverage cart due to warnings of turbulence which did not seem that severe. We were forced to fly lower and faster to make up time which I was thinking would burn up fuel.  The range on a 777 is massive, somewhere near 8000 miles if I remember correctly.  One of the reasons the Malaysian plane disappeared was that it can fly forever.  Our flight was at somewhere in the mid 6500 mile range, and at times our ground speed was pushing 700 mph with the tailwind, but still…..As it looked like we had made up the hour delay we started something odd, we began to circle Albany NY, once twice, thrice and then we darted dead south, then west a little.  You may not know geography but, Newark is NOT that direction.  “Well, we are down to our fuel reserves and due to traffic at Newark we are being diverted to…Philadelphia.”  The pilot said.  It was also weird that we never heard the same pilot.  There was also a rumor this was a training flight for new pilots.  Over Trenton, I told my wife….

“We are going to Philly.”  She gave me the look like I was insane.  I was not.

I watched the descent thinking we were coming in a little hot, but I am just the passenger in 22B, but one with a million odd miles.  I have done Philly before, swing around Camden, go over the river and land.  I generally hate Philly airport, but tonight I would possibly hate it more since it was NOT a United hub and stranded in Philly?  OMG!

The wheels hit like a car hits a big and deep pot hole, jarring and with a bounce, our wing tipped quite a bit down, we bounced harder a second time and then, I felt the pilot floor it.  “Shit!” I muttered.  I had been on a previous aborted landing. From my too many flights here I knew we were at about 50-60% of the runway length by now and Philly has a long runway.  My stomach would soon be in my throat as I pondered if we had enough space.  I saw the end lights about thirty feet below us as the huge plane struggled to gain altitude.  I sighed relief, but there were things going on.  

We began the circle of shame.  The circle of shame we did at Midway once when a plane decided to sneak across the runway while my plane was landing was fast and tight, almost something from a stunt show.  It was nuts.  This one was leisurely, and around the entire city, like we were sight seeing.  The voice from the cockpit was mumbled and vague, what had happened?  “We did not like our approach” was the only thing said.  Did we have enough gas for another 40 mile joyride? What if we failed that?  What was really wrong?

So, we came in for it again.  At 3000 feet when I knew we were going committed, I said "I love you" to Silja and told her "it had been a fun ride."  I did not want to die on a United plane, but it seemed a possibility.  At the office I had written “When in doubt do NOT fly United” as a rule.  I had ignored the rule here.  Was this bad Karma?  We held hands, I tucked my head into hers and waited.  Covered my face with my pillow and prayed.  Would it be a crash or life?

Going to Bhutan was somewhat of a spiritual journey, but my spirit was not ready for a journey.  Well, the plane landed quite calmly, actually.  No one clapped.  In Midway, everyone clapped and those of us who stayed were given free drinks.  Here, we got some chips (I think) with writing in Japanese.  We went to the end of the runway and the plane sat for 2 hours.  They fueled her and waited, we would be leaving in ten minutes for 10 times.  I was happy to be on the ground, though, anywhere even in Philly.  I meant we had not died

We eventually flew off to Newark.  Our connection was long gone due to us being 4 hours late, when we arrived.  The plane somehow thought we were Flight 1 from Frankfurt on that leg, we were not on the luggage board,  and we meandered our way to a hotel and crashed, to sleep not the bus.  Our son in Germany woke us from a text to check if we were still alive at 2am which was 9 his time.  4AM today brought us up, back to the airport and on a flight to Tampa.  This flight seemed mundane, well until we landed and the plane braked hard like none of us needed to know what had laid ahead of us.  As we taxied to the runway, shaking a little Silja got a text that one or more of her luggage was enroute on a different plane.  Despite this, all three pieces came off the carousel.  Our friend Ric picked us up and got us to the RV, and the RV never felt so good.

Somewhere along the way we saw and ad about travel.  “Travel….because you don’t have to.”  I found that a funny slogan and now it almost seems to be a proverb, maybe we have traveled too much, at least we are alive.

The trip was 23000 air miles at 8 different airports.  As I said, we should have gone east instead of west but well, it was an epic journey few get to do, and maybe, just maybe few should do.  

I will post an extensive trip summary tomorrow as I have thousands of pictures to process, and some to hopefully find.

Yes, WE ARE ALIVE!

Olaf  

Saturday, November 19, 2022

CAMP CEMENT


This is not a bird trip organized for sissies.  Seeing the King aside, this almost seems like work.  The typical day is up at 0530, load up out birding by 6am, and we bird until nightfall.  The days are long and tiring, but we've seen a lot of birds.  After a few days moving around from hotel to hotel, all rather simple affairs, we went camping, as where we went, there were barely roads and even fewer hotels.

After two nights in a tent out in a dry rice field, we moved to the Indian border and stayed in more secure tent on a platform.



As we birded at the second site, the support crew went ahead of us to scout for a place to camp, unfortunately in Nganglam, there were little flat areas, and the place they had used before was used for construction, as we ate lunch that day, we still did not know where we would be staying.  We ate lunch in the parking lot of a Buddhist Crematorium of all places.  There was fresh wood, but it was not currently being used.


Not sure what was in the box in the prayer room nor what the nearly or naked women meant, and frankly we were afraid to ask too much.

 Our lunches are impromptu affairs done in the middle of the road sometimes, the food excellent, the locations...unique.

The Bathrooms, well, ? primative?


We drove through Nganglam without truly sure what we would expect to spend the night.  This is a small city on the border filled with trucks from the cement plan.  I bought a coke.


North of town we saw our cook standing on the side of the road and we turned into someone's house. So using ingenuity, the support crew had spied a location flat enough to camp in, but it turned out to be the backyard of the CEO of the local plastic bag manufacturer, for the huge cement plant across the street.  He was the interim CEO of that 600 person plant.

Somehow he said yes, and we set up tents and camped out in his backyard.  The support crew even dug portable outhouses in his garden

But the location had issues, besides the backyard being small

We had to eat on their porch


The View from the backyard was the cement factory going 24/7, particulate ash fell on our tents and the large Indian trucks carrying the cement away grinded up the incline below us.


Then the owners showed up and it did not appear as though the wife and the two children had got the message that the birding group had taken over their backyard, but they made us drinks and ate with us and told us their stories.  Wife center, husband center right next to the two children.

Out group, local birding expert Dodji (far left), and the host family (front center right)

And....the stray dogs living on the street below barked, all night.  The only thing louder than the cement factory, were the dogs.  Oh, and the owners now had only one dog... as a leopard had taken their second dog a few weeks back...from their back yard.  The owner decided it was best to leave the yard light on, and put in a new bulb before bedtime.

There were birds in this backyard....

Best look at Red Headed trogan

white throated kingfisher

We survived the night.  There were no leopard attacks but no one got a good sleep, and by morning my mouth tasted like it had burnt metal in it.  The hosts were nice but Nganglam needed some environmental help.  We named the place Camp Cement.

We soon forgot about Camp Cement as we drove on a new road carved into the cliff of the mountains and in many places had had rock slides from the monsoon blocking it and now the debris flattened to drive over the top of.  I was afraid to look over.  Even the bridge between sections of thecrazy road was scary.  We we met trucks I had to close my eyes and hope. We survived and I guess it was all in great fun....



So we did see some birds
Common hawk cuckoo

Crested kingfisher

Himalayan prinia

ibisbill

siberian stonechat

Ultra hard to see Slender billed scimitar-babbler

Yellow billed blue magpie

This is just some of the birds, more to come and even more adventure to come, Bhutan.....interesting place, Kings, CEOs and luckily no leopards.

Olaf



A Flamboyance of Flamingoes

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