Travels to Cuba – More Adventures in the Countryside!

March 30th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
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Our guide leans against the very rare Microcycas calocoma

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We were privileged to go to an “ecologically protected area” known as Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). Our bus wound its way up a very rough dirt road (though our expert driver, Miquel, did a fantastic job of missing the giant potholes) to the field station. The area of Mil Cumbres is geologically varied, including large patches of serpentine soil. Serpentine rocks have a low calcium to magnesium ration and may have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other soils. Because of this, plants that grow on the soils are often highly specialized and endemic (found only there) to the region. In Mil Cumbres, there is a very high concentration of endemics, including Microcycas calocoma, a cycad found only in this area. There are only about 600 plants of this species – the only species in its genus – and we took a short hike along a lovely stream to see one. This forest was probably the best of the ones we visited, but even it was severely fragmented, with agricultural fields and houses throughout it.

 

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Ted and Iris celebrate their anniversary as the musicians play

We returned to the field station to find that a wonderful lunch had been placed for us. As with all our meals, local musicians played. This group was unusual because they included a flute player and most of their songs appeared to be original. We bought all the CDs they had. This was Iris and Ted Wagner’s wedding anniversary and the band played a special romantic song while they danced.

 

We left Mil Cumbres to head to Viñales, a lovely town that one of our group called “the La Connor of Cuba” (for readers not from Washington, La Connor is a scenic town north of Seattle that is a popular stop for tourists). The valley surrounding the town was incredibly beautiful, surrounded by mogotes, which are steep, flat-topped hills created by eroding limestone. We had several activities there, including visiting a garden created mostly by two sisters who lived there their entire lives and who had an interesting habit of placing doll heads throughout the garden. Over time, the hair on the dolls decayed, leaving a somewhat frightening discovery for the unprepared. The sisters grew many ornamentals there, but also fruit and other food plants, which they sold. As with all the gardens and hikes we took in Cuba, our guide was very knowledgeable about the medicinal qualities of the plants. In the absence of adequate medicines, Cubans have been very resourceful with traditional cures.

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The beautiful valley of Viñales

Note the dolls ahead in the garden in Viñales

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Our guide rests in the tobacco curing house. Photo by Martha Clatterbaugh.

This is also a big tobacco growing area and we visited a tobacco farm. About 90% of the harvest goes to the government, but farmers can keep 10% for their own use. The tobacco was being harvested and we visited the curing shed. The farmer explained that the leaves cure slowly in the shed and that they are sprayed regularly with water containing honey, guava, sugar, and/or rum every few days. As they cure, workers – mostly women – sort the leaves according to their qualities. Different qualities of leaf are desirable for the wrapper of the cigars, to add different flavors and aromas, etc. We then went to another area where he demonstrated how to roll a cigar and most of us shared one (possibly the source of the cold we all left Cuba with!).  You do not inhale cigar smoke, but savor the flavors in your mouth. It was interesting, but I don’t think I need to do it again.

 

The Valle de Viñales may have been my favorite part of the trip, but our last stop might be the most memorable. We traveled to the Zapata Peninsula, where there is a national park to preserve birds (65% of Cuba’s 354 bird species can be found there), as well as 1000 species of plants and 37 species of reptiles, including the Cuban Crocodile. Our hotel was on the Bay of Pigs and many of us swam in the shallow waters. The Bay of Pigs was the site of an attempted invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Castro was warned and prepared to repel the invasion at Playa Larga, which is where our hotel was located. It was not a good event in Cuban and American relations and it was so interesting to stand there and try to imagine it unfolding.

 

Our group stands in front of the Bay of Pigs, along with our Cuban guide, Frank (wearing red) and our driver Miquel (kneeling, in a tie). Photo by Steve Westcott

That night we attended an outdoor stage rehearsal of a group called the Korimacao Community Project. Young people from the area are selected and trained by well-known musical, dancing, and acting professionals. We were very impressed by their talent and it was fun to see the directors putting the students through their paces. There were some very talented young people – if they had more opportunity to travel, I have no doubt that some of them would be successful on a world stage.

 

We had only one night at Playa Larga and the next day, after a short hike to see some of the local birds, we headed back to Havana for a last chance to get souvenirs and for a very good dinner at an upscale private restaurant in the upscale section of town called Miramar.

 

As we prepared to leave Cuba – a place most of us never thought we would have the opportunity to visit – we reflected on our impressions. We had come with expectations and some of them were met (cool old cars everywhere!), but others were more…complicated. Complicated is a word that comes to mind often when contemplating modern Cuba. It is less than a month after we left, and I am still sorting it out in my head. I will try to pin some of these thoughts down in another message.

Travels to Cuba – Seeing the Countryside

March 22nd, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
Mercury car photo

A typical street scene in Havana. Note the Mercury in the front of the line – it is the same color as my old car, but I think it is a couple of years older. Also note the pedicabs.

We headed out of Havana early on a Sunday morning. This was really our first look at the countryside, and at the transportation system. The stories about huge numbers of old American cars from the 1950s? All true! Under Cuban law, cars registered after the 1959 revolution could not be bought or sold, though that is changing. The result is that those who had a car hung onto it and tried to keep it running, passing it down as an inheritance. Many of the cars we saw are Frankencars, with parts from various cars slapped together. Some were well-tended, others looked like they were held together with rust, and it was not uncommon to see one of them along the roadside with the hood up.  I was on the lookout for a ’56 Mercury Monterey, like my grandmother’s old car that I drove in high school. Chevys seem to be the most common but I did see Mercurys, as well as just about any other model you can imagine.

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These flatbed trucks, loaded with standing passengers, are a typical “bus” that moves people in the countryside between towns.

Only about 1% of Cuban people own cars, so other forms of transportation are common too. We saw lots of bicycles, including pedicabs. There were lots of horses with buggies too, especially as we got outside the city. We saw some recognizable buses, packed with people, but in the rural provinces, it is common to see people standing, jammed into the back of an open-air truck. In the countryside we also saw an interesting sight – most vehicles are owned by the state and at key intersections in the small towns we passed we observed an official dressed all in yellow stopping cars and trucks. Our guide, Frank, explained that all state vehicles had to give rides to citizens going in the same direction, so the man in yellow was coordinating ride-sharing.

Our first stop that Sunday was at the National Botanical Garden. The director, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, gave us a lecture on the plants and vegetation zones of Cuba that was very helpful in our interpreting what we saw on our later hikes. One of her staff then joined us on the bus as we toured the Garden. It is HUGE – about 600 hectares (1480 acres) so we only saw a small bit of it in our tour. Probably the most impressive part was the palm collection. They have over 200 species in their collection, making it one of the largest in the world. They also have a really lovely greenhouse area. Following our tour we went to their open air restaurant and had a wonderful buffet lunch – one of the best meals we had in Cuba! Many of our meals were short on fresh fruits and vegetables and this lunch had various salads and a large fruit plate.

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We prepare to enter the beautiful greenhouse at the National Botanical Garden

 

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The community at Las Terrasas includes apartment buildings and small, but neat, duplexes set on hillsides

Our day was just beginning though – from the Garden we traveled west to see the community of Las Terrazas located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the Pinar del Rio province. French coffee farmers arrived early in the 19th century and there were more than 50 plantations in the area.  These plantations were later abandoned and erosion became a problem. Beginning in 1968, the hillsides were terraced (Las Terrazas means terraces) and reforested with 8 million trees. In 1985 the area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. Such Reserves allow some development within and Las Terrazas is designed as a sustainable community and ecotourism center. We visited a restored coffee plantation and then went to the small community, where we visited the homes of two local artists. The homes were small, but very nice and the community seemed vibrant, with children and chickens roaming around.  We visited their small coffee bar where we were treated to excellent espresso drinks. The community seemed very peaceful – they take great pride in retaining the natural, social, and cultural heritage of the area.

Leaving Las Terrazas, we traveled to our hotel near Soroa, a sprawling set of buildings on hillsides. In the center was a very large pool, which became of focus on interest on the next couple of toasty afternoons. The hotel is right next to an orchid garden that is now run as a research center by the University of Pinar del Rio. The garden was originally built by a wealthy man, starting in 1948, who then gave it to the University. It is a set on a steep hillside, like my own garden, so I was really interested in how it was terraced to provide planting areas. Most of the building material appeared to be native limestone. There were more than 700 species of orchids, begonias, and other types of flowering plants. Our guide took us up the hill to the house, where we sat on the terrace, listened to musicians, and had refreshments, including fresh coconut water.

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The orchid garden at Soroa includes an amazing infrastructure made of limestone

We also enjoyed a short hike while in Soroa, but the best hike of the trip was on the next leg of our journey, which we visited the “ecologically protected” area of Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). More about that coming up!

The Adventure Begins – Travels to Cuba

March 13th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

It has been less than a week since we left Cuba and has started to seem like a dream.  This is probably in part because most of us came down with a hellish cold the day we left and have spent these few days back in a feverish and dazed condition. But it is also because the experience of immersing ourselves in a world so different from our daily lives has made the transition back more intense than after some trips.

As I expected, the internet access in Havana was spotty and in the other parts of the country we visited, non-existent. I will post a few blog entries over the next week or so that reflects our travels.

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The beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, our home in Havana on the Plaza San Francisco de Asis. Some of our group is loitering outside.

We met up in the wee hours (5:30 am) on Feb. 23 to get to the Miami airport and complete all the paperwork to get our visas for Cuba. After spending time standing in this line, and then that, we were on the flight to Cuba! The plane had hardly gone up before it came down, underscoring how close Cuba is to southern Florida. We straggled out of the baggage claim to meet Frank Alpizar, who would be our able guide for the next 10 days. We checked into the beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, a former mansion that has been remodeled into an excellent hotel. The location was fabulous, right on the San Francisco de Asis Square in old Havana. After our first meal of many to consist of white rice, black beans, and our choice of chicken, fish, or pork (pretty much every lunch and dinner followed this formula), we had the afternoon free to explore the old town.

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A view into a courtyard in old Havana. Photo by Steve Westcott

Old Havana is beautiful and sad all at once. It is filled with ornate colonial buildings in various conditions. Some, like our hotel, were beautifully restored. Others are in such disrepair that is hard to believe that people live in them, but in most cases they are indeed lived in. Many of the buildings use the typical Spanish concept of an interior courtyard, and peeking in the open doors of some showed a nice space in a few, and crowded and, well, squalid conditions in others. The many plazas in the area were filled with kids playing games, indicating that families lived in these homes.

The unusual living conditions in Havana were displayed in the most bizarre and almost hallucinatory terms when we visited the private restaurant, La Guarida, for dinner one night. We drove in the bus to a neighborhood of decaying, but formerly glorious, buildings. The restaurant is on the fourth floor of a beautiful old mansion that was the location of the Oscar-nominated movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” We hiked over marble floors and up stairs lined with wrought iron railings, and had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards, we descended down a different set of stairs and found ourselves in what seemed to be a former ballroom.

Lisa and Nevada dance in the old balllroom downstairs from La Guarida, with an audience of not only our group, but small children who live off of the room.

Lisa and Nevada began waltzing and I attempted to take a few photos. As I did this, I realized that there were a couple of toddlers watching us through an open door of a small room opening onto the ballroom that was the home of their family. As we left the building, I realized that other families also were living in small areas carved out of this once grand estate now visited by tourists rich enough to afford a meal they could never aspire to. It felt surreal.

Our time in Havana was busy. We visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture where we heard a presentation on their programs and had a brief tour. They have been around for 108 years but it seemed clear that they lack the resources to as effective as they could be in providing assistance to Cuban farmers. They seem to have a strong program in plant pathology, but their labs need much upgrading.

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This is a typical scene – with one building at least partially restored, but the adjoining building uninhabitable. The old car is also typical – more about that later.

One of the standouts of our trip to Havana was the visit with Miquel Salcines, a Cuban agronomist who started Alamar Organoponic Gardens during the “Special Period.”  These thriving gardens were an inspiration in urban agriculture. Mr. Salcines provided some interesting background, including that before the Special Period 80% of the food was grown in non-urban areas, with large inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and now 80% is grown organically in urban areas. They went organic, in part, because no other means were available to them and they had to go back to the “old way” of doing things. These food cooperatives provide good working conditions and workers have access to food, loans, education, and payments for shares that accumulate over the time with the cooperatives. The Seattle area is striving for greater food security and there are many lessons to be learned in Havana.

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Miquel Salcines talks about the practices of the Alamar Organoponic Gardens.

Many of us chose to go see the Buena Vista Social Club on our final night on this first part of the trip. I saw the famous Oscar-winning documentary not that long ago and recognized some of the performers from the film, though many of them are now deceased. It was a fun show and a good way to end the first phase of the trip.  The next day we set off to explore some of the countryside. Stay tuned for more on that.

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The farm is managed using traditional practices. The fields are plowed using oxen.

UWBG Goes to Cuba!

February 22nd, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

I was a very small child during the Cuban Missile Crisis but I was old enough to know that my parents were quite upset about something. I knew what “bomb” meant and when I heard that word I was very frightened. It is, in fact, one of my earliest memories. I am from the generation that grew up with families installing bomb shelters and in school we used to have drills where we “ducked and covered” in the hallway (I am not sure just how that was supposed to help in case of a nuclear bomb).Cuba image

But even as a child, I knew that there was more to Cuba. Its history is fascinating, with stories of the original inhabitants, the Arawak people, emerging from their villages in 1492 to greet Christopher Columbus with gifts of thread and parrots. Sadly, his log also notes on October 14th that they apparently had little notion of fighting and he was able to capture seven to bring to back to Europe.

Cuba then became a Spanish colony for hundreds of years until the Spanish-American War lead to withdrawal of the Spanish in 1898 and the establishment of an independent government in 1902. It is interesting that the United States fought for Cuban independence but then just a few decades later, became completely estranged amid hostilities. It just underscores the complicated nature of our relationship with our close neighbor to the south.
As a forbidden place, it holds allure. We hear stories about the classic old cars still in use because new cars are not an option. In school we learned about the Cuban revolution, Batista, Castro, and “Che” Guevara. There have been air and boat lifts of refuges in the news periodically. The country seems beautiful, mysterious, adventurous, and tragic all at once.

In the early to mid 1990s, after the collapse Cuba imageof the Soviet Union, Cubans entered their “Special Period.” This time may illustrate the resilience of the Cuban people more than almost any other time in their tumultuous history. Without the input of petroleum from the Soviet Union, and faced with hunger and enormous deprivation, Cubans demonstrated their resourcefulness. They learned to live with reduced transportation and completely overhauled their agricultural systems, using fewer tractors and fertilizers produced from petroleum products. They developed a creative organic agricultural system that included not only fields of crops, but urban agriculture in vacant lots and rooftops.

When President Obama lifted some travel restrictions, allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba on a special license, and when a representative of Holbrook Travel, the company that UWBG worked with last year to offer atour of Chile, mentioned that they were able to organize these tours, I jumped in! I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury for one of their “People to People” licenses and, after waiting, providing more information, and waiting some more, it was granted.

Holbrook has planned a wonderful trip for us. We will be visiting botanic gardens, meeting their staff and scientists and consulting with some of the urban farmers in Havana to learn how they make the most of every square inch they farm. I am really looking forward to our visit to the Zapata National Park, which is part of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where we will be guided on a walk by a professor from the University of Las Villas. In addition to the great plants and animals we will see, I am looking forward to the walking tour of Old Havana, seeing those old cars (and maybe a ’56 Mercury Monterey – my grandmother’s car that I drove in high school!), and maybe going out to hear some Cuban music.

I am not expecting to be able to send emails from Cuba, so I won’t be able to blog from there, but when I return in early March I will describe some of our adventures. So don’t go too far!

2012 Cuba Tour Rule #1: Keep a good journal

October 18th, 2011 by Jennifer Youngman, Program Coordinator

“We were…amazed at how much we did in such a short time. At the end of the trip we were trying to remember our first full day and it seemed like months, rather than weeks, had passed.” So wrote Dr. Sarah Reichard, director of UW Botanic Gardens, shortly after returning from her 2011 Chile tour.

Dr. Reichard’s upcoming Cuba tour (Feb. 22 to Mar. 4, 2012) will feature equally outstanding opportunities to observe indigenous flora and fauna, view enticing gardens, experience Cuba’s unique culture, and learn from local experts. So be forewarned! Keep a good journal, Cuba by Barbara Wright - iSustainand you’ll be telling firsthand stories of this unusual destination for years to come.

Your walking tour of Havana Vieja with a professor of architecture will help put everything into context and inform you about historical restoration projects. You’ll learn of recent research on invasive species and ecosystems of the area with Botanic Researcher Dr. Ramona Oviedo and curators of the National Museum of Natural History. You’ll investigate horticultural practices at Alamar Organoponic Gardens, unique Cuban gardens with 160 cooperative owners. You’ll meet elementary school students, and you’ll attend a presentation by members of the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture and the Cuban Association of Crop and Forestry Professionals.

And that’s just the first two days! What were we saying about keeping a good journal?

Despite revolution and economic hardship, Cuba is alive with private and botanic gardens and agricultural innovation. The ecologically protected area of Mil Cumbres, orchid gardens, and Zapata Peninsula’s 1,000 plant species await you! Contact Holbrook Travel at 800.451.7111 to reserve your space today!

Flyer with detailed itinerary

Reservation form and terms

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Photos courtesy of Barbara Wright of iSustain (click to enlarge).

Tour Cuba’s gardens with Director Reichard

September 22nd, 2011 by Jennifer Youngman, Program Coordinator

Cuba imageThe UW Botanic Gardens has just been issued a license by the US Department of Treasury so that Executive Director Sarah Reichard may lead a tour group through Cuba Feb. 22 to Mar. 4, 2012! This is a spectacular opportunity to learn about Cuba’s ecosystems, endemic and endangered species, organic farms and reforestation projects, as well as Cuban history and current events.

Everywhere you go, you’ll enjoy special opportunities to learn firsthand from local experts. You’ll meet curators of the Museum of Natural History, Havana Botanical Society members, professors, a Cuban agronomist, a local naturalist, a tobacco farmer and the owners of a unique Botanic and Herb Garden. You’ll visit the National Botanical Garden, the University of Pinar del Rio’s Orchid Garden, the Ecologically Protected Area of Mil Cumbres with hundreds of Cuba and local endemics, and Zapata Park with 1,000 plant species, 65% of Cuba’s bird species, and the Cuba crocodile.

Arrangements are being handled by Holbrook Travel, who so ably handled the details of Dr. Reichard’s and Dan Hinkley’s Chile Garden Tour early this year. The tour serves as a fundraiser for the UW Botanic Gardens.

Contact Holbrook Travel at 800.451.7111 or travel@holbrooktravel.com to reserve your place in the tour.

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Photos courtesy of Barbara Wright of iSustain (click to enlarge).

Terney

August 10th, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had rolled into Terney the evening before after dropping our various chauffeurs at the “wilderness lodge” on the edge of the nearby Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik.  The drive into Terney was gorgeous – rolling hills of deep green forests and fields spattered with various sized bodies of water reflecting the grey sky overhead.  It felt a bit like the Oregon Coast.  The town itself felt different from the other towns we’d passed through.  It was clean and bright and all the roofs were similar and newish.  Terney is home to a large Japanese timber company which accounts for its prosperity.  It’s also home to a branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society, started by an American guy named Dale Miquelle in 1992.  WCS is primarily devoted to research and protection of the Amur Tiger & Amur Leopard.  Their headquarters, a cozy little home/office perched on a hill overlooking the town, was our base – the most comfortable base we’d had yet, complete with tiger striped blankets & towels, and a super high-tech shower from the future.  Our host, Anna, was the only staff member around and the first true red-head we’d seen in Russia.  Anna made me notice how many different noses there are in the world – hers was very cute and elf-like.

After settling into our new digs and a delicious dinner featuring fresh baked bread, we headed over to another organization’s space, Uragus, where we would be presenting the following morning.  On this night, however, it was our turn to be presented to while nibbling on the compulsory tea and sweets.  The speaker, and our primary contact in Terney, was yet another passionate woman named Galina.  She and her husband Serge (a former ornithologist for the zapovednik with the most amazing eye brows I’ve ever seen) had founded two organizations, one for adults the other for children, both dedicated to ecological conservation.  Uragus, the adult version, was named after a very common bird native to the area.  Among the various projects these organizations had started was an ecology club that went on hikes and camping trips in the region that included trail building; summer ecology camps for kids; an ecology olympics that sounded like a lot of fun; student/teacher workshops with all 10 villages located in the Terney region (2 of these villages are inhabited by the indigenous peoples known as the Udege); and last but not least a mini-arboretum that surrounded the building in which we now sat.  We talked until 11:30 before finally calling it a night.  The forecast was for rain in the morning so we went to bed not knowing if we would have much of a crowd when we awoke.

 

We had little reason for concern.  Russians are a hearty lot and like Seattlites, a little rain is hardly discouraging.  But before our schtick, we were to take a tour of the garden that Uragus had planted with the help of kids and community members.  Our tour guide was a little girl with a bright pink shirt and a long red stick for pointing at things (or snapping our attention).  She was incredible.  If only I could recruit American kids like her to help lead our Weekend Walks.  It was a tough act to follow, but Tony and Sally knocked it out of the park and as we had come to expect, the kids who participated in the ecosystem challenge demonstrated a deeper understanding of ecological concepts than most adults.  My favorite part about this particular session was how the small group of slightly older kids (teens) helped out the younger ones in figuring out the ecosystem puzzle.  Bandura would have been pleased with such effective modeling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterwards we took it outside for some games.  We were short on time, the kids wanted to run and we were dealing with a pretty big age spread.  So we played a few rounds of “bear, salmon, mosquito” followed by a little “maple seed mix-up” during which I learned the Russian word for “tree” (dierova).  We were joined, un-expectedly, by Helaina and the kids that had basically kidnapped me the day before.  It was good to see them, and a nice feeling to have been missed.  We returned to our base at the Wildlife Conservation Society where we were joined by Galina for a delicious lunch of soup, salad and bread.  We brainstormed how we could help and get Vlad BG involved and came up with a few ideas, the most simple of which was to provide them with plans to install a cattle guard in their front gate to protect their garden from the “free-range” cows and goats that roam the town.

 

Our time in Terney had been too brief, but there was still so much to see and do.  First on the list was a crappy little art museum back in Kavalerovo, and who should we find as our tour guide – Helaina, showing up yet again like a dirty penny.  The first piece I saw as I entered was an intergalactic landscape scene complete with space station (Russians love space).  I knew I was in for it.  Featured prominently in the gallery were works by a local sculptor.  When I say local, I mean 5 minutes down the road.  So we went to his house and toured his garden.  Oleg was not only an artist, but also a proprietor of a “banya” (sauna).  I use that word “proprietor” loosely as I don’t think we actually paid anything, but sauna we did!  It was terrific and if I could choose one aspect of Russian culture to bring home, it would be the banya.

 

p.s.  If anyone out there is interested in collaborating for some sort of artist exchange, I know a Russian sculptor who’s dying to show some work in Seattle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kavalerava to Ternei

July 27th, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

We were put up for the night in some friend of a friend’s apartment who was out of town for vacation or something.  These kinds of details are too much to care about when going full bore and everything has to be interpreted.  The important part was that it was dry, the floor was flat, there was enough bedding to make a pillow fort, and I had bought the right power converter at the airport so waking up to music on the laptop was possible.  Tony was stoked to hear the Stones as we prepared for our day; Sally was perhaps less stoked, but she’s tough.  Nadya’s mom would compliment her later over breakfast telling her that “she’s a woman who could stop a horse”.  Our first sheduled appearance was at the school where Nadya’s mom is a teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a leisurely tea complete with various cakes and delectable edibles (Russian’s love their sweets), the morning began with a presentation from our hosts.  The woman delivering, Alexandra, had a nickname, “The Encyclopedia”.  She was rad.  And she wasn’t even a teacher, she was a retired volunteer (what would we do without retired volunteers).  Alexandra told us about the school’s 3 big projects that she had spearheaded and seen to fruition:  the arboretum; the ecology trail; and the natural history museum.

First the arboretum:  through much petitioning and hoop jumping, the school had convinced the city of Kavalerava to let them take the abandoned, ruble-filled lot that was their back yard and do with it what they wanted.  They turned it into a contest and put out a call for designs.  An 8th grader won, and with some help from a local professional, a mini-arboretum was born.  Featuring over 80 species of mostly native trees & shrubs and several concept gardens gardens (medicinal herbs; plants of North America, etc.), it was an incredible example of teamwork and determination to behold.  The ecology trail is about a mile long, features a variety of ecosystem types and winds up at the towns most prominent feature – a granite monolith defying the forces of erosion and jutting chin-ward to the sky.  The natural history museum had 3 exhibits:  Minerals; the Sea of Japan; and Geologic Excursions (which is what they call fieldtrips).  The benefits Alexandra pointed out that had resulted from these combined projects were, increased scientific knowledge, community engagement and biological preservation.  Brilliant!  I want to steal that and make it our new tagline.  What did we have to teach these people?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But teach we did and Tony and Sally both played their parts masterfully.  I think Tony may have been channeling some Mic Jagger from our morning inspiration.  The students demonstrated ecological comprehension beyond their years as the ring of teachers, some visiting from nearby schools, and adults nodded and leaned into eachother’s ears.  I loved simply observing.  Kids, no matter where they’re from, will always express their kid-selves with their antics and mannerisms.  Russian kids have a very distinct way of raising their hands – the one arm shoots forward and up like a sword blade and the other immediately goes to supporting the now raised elbow, as if they’d been trained to wait with their hands up indefinitely.

After the “Ecosystem Challenge”, a program that Mts. to Sound does in the classroom with 4th/5th graders, we headed outside for some games.  There were about 40 kids, ages ranging from 8 – 14 so Tony and I divided and conquered.  He took the younger group first and then we flip-flopped after 15 minutes.  I had Nastia and tall Katia doing their best to translate for me as I got the kids to play forest succession game we like to call “the forest succession game”.  It was awesome for me because I got to learn how Russians play “rock, paper, scissor”.  The game is the same, but the lead up before you throw is 5 times as long, it’s like a sonnet.  The kids eventually got what was going on, and more importantly, so did Nastia and I could see her wheels turning as she thought of how to tweak it for native Russian trees (I had used PACNW natives).  With the younger kids I just wanted to play, so split them into teams and had them part-take in an “amazing animal form relay race”.  The message about finding your niche in life and adapting to change was completely lost, but we found ourselves burying the smallest race contestant in grass, so we got the enjoyment part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We headed back inside for a brainstorming session on how to partner with Vlad BG, ate more cakes, drank more tea, and then it was back on the road.  Destination, Ternei, a little village 5 hours north along the coast.  As I walked to the parking lot I was still buzzing from all the kid attention (and special Russian tea), and somehow got ushered into a van other than ours.  Helaina, “the English teacher at the school”, was heading the same direction with 5 of her young students, a couple older ladies and a bear of a man behind the wheel to stay the night at a wildlife preserve.  She figured it would be a great chance for her students to practice English and I went along with it.  They turned out to be really great kids, and really nice people (with matching camo) and we bonded.  At one point we stopped for lunch at what resembled a school cafeteria and I was “rung up” with an abacus for the first time in my life.  My grand total was about $2.50.  I found out later that Sally had also ridden solo, but in another jeep, and Tony had ridden with our hosts from Vlad BG and Ivan or driver, a former military pilot.  It was comical, but this is what I had come to expect in Russia – relax, go with it.

Mother (and father) Russia

July 22nd, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had made our presence felt in Vladivostok, now it was time to take our act on the road.  First stop:  Userisk, a large town due north, to present to a group of college students at the Pedagogical Institute.  These students were a mix of Geography and Ecology majors.  I majored in geography as an undergrad and almost all of the electives I took in grad school had to do with ecology, so I felt right at home.  Before going on, we had a sit down with the director of this 101 year old university and a few of his professors.  We learned that pedagogically speaking, Russian schooling is based more on the German system than the American one.  Students are in large part still viewed as empty vessels needing to be filled with knowledge by their teachers.  I illustrated this mentality by taking a bottle of water and pouring it into an empty cup (the things we do to communicate when language isn’t an option).  One of the professors picked right up on the analogy, took another empty cup and pretended to throw the water out under the table, mimicking a common response from students who are force-fed their education.  We all had a good laugh.  He went on to tell us that educational reform is happening in post-Soviet Russia, but as with all large movements, it just takes time.

I started my talk with a 5 minute crash course on the geography of Puget Sound (as requested by the professor) and then dove into the “what, who, why, and how of EE” that I presented the day before at the conference.  During the “what” I explained how EE has been such a difficult thing to pin down in the U.S. in part because in English the word “environment” can have a plethora of meanings depending on who you ask.  The word “education” is equally divisive.  So when you put the two words together, one can see how difficult it could be to arrive at a clear definition.  This logic doesn’t work in Russian.  They have a very specific word, “ekologia”, that they use for environmental education and it’s very similar to our notion of ecology.  So while this started us off on a slightly confusing foot, it did lead to an interesting discussion and help turn our presentation into more of a dialogue.

I ended my part with a challenge.  In one of my slides, I showed a brief timeline of educational reform in America that included only a few noteworthy dates.  One was the launching of Sputnik in 1957 that led to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  This was the act that provided federal funding to states and helped make public education accessible to everyone (keeping America competitive with the USSR).  The next major reform I discussed was the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 which in turn led to the more recent “No Child Left Inside Act”.  The main motivation behind the latter is to help ensure America’s leadership position in the emerging “Green Economy”.  So the challenge I laid down for these Russian teachers in training was to ask if they were willing to sit idly by and watch us take that lead.  The most challenging issues we face today are global ones; I figure a little healthy competition of who can be greener can only be good for society – certainly better than “who can have the bigger nuclear arsenal”.

By the time Sally finished her part of the presentation on the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the students were ready to jump out the windows of our now breathy conference room.  We’d talked straight through lunch, so we called it a day and said dasvidanya.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us to Kavalerava (Nadya’s hometown), and in addition, had been invited to visit a “nearby” natural history museum located at the edge of a large zapopriendik (protected area).  The woman who ran the place, and managed the associated EE program, had been in attendance the day before in Vlad, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  So while it was out of our way and put us a little behind schedule, it turned out to be really cool and I’m glad we did it.  The drive out there was our first real chance to get a feel for the forest in Primorsky Krai.  It reminded me of where I grew up in Shenandoah Co., Virginia.  Lush green pastures set amidst rolling tree covered hills carved by meandering streams.  It was hard to imagine tigers and leopards in such a setting, but sure enough, when we arrived to the museum, we saw them in the flesh.  Granted they were poorly stuffed and somewhat dusty, but it was still quite impressive.  And the big cats are but a smidgeon of the biodiversity in the Russian Far East.  Housed within this quaint one room exhibit must have been several thousand specimens representing all the various taxa groups and collected on site.  Mongolian bears, wild boars, little deer with vampire fangs, countless insects, and a rich stock of birds and reptiles as well.  We’d learned the night before from Alexander that Russia has something called “The Red Book” listing all their threatened/endangered species.  It turns out that a majority of these species are endemic to Primorsky Krai, and a fare number of them were on display for us here in the boonies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left the museum, now really behind schedule, and high-tailed it to our next destination.  Nadya’s parents had arranged a fancy dinner to welcome us, but we had one very special stop to make before hand to meet Nadya’s grandparents.  “Salt of the earth” is the best phrase I can come up with to describe them.  These are the Russians that live in the pages of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, skin leathered by years spent in the soil, backs and hands as strong and capable as adults half their age.  We had found “mother (and father) Russia”.  I have no idea what they must have thought about their granddaughter showing up with us to their little plot in paradise, but I could see the pride swell in both their eyes as they embraced.  We sat and gorged ourselves on freshly made crepes topped with strawberries, cream and honey and time suddenly ceased to exist.  It came out that Nadya’s grandfather had once been in a choir, and so naturally we asked for a song, and just as naturally, he sang one.  His bellowing voice filled our little kitchen concert hall belying his 80+ years – a haunting melody about a white daisy that still echoes in my head.  In the dying light, we left their farm reluctantly and arrived to dinner around 11pm to find Nadya’s parents fuming.  It was obvious that they had been waiting for some time, and that we were the only reason the restaurant was still open.  Part of me felt bad, but most of me didn’t care, our delay had been worth every heartfelt note.

We’re Big in Vladivostok

July 21st, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We woke early and excited (and maybe just a little nervous).  Today was our big day where we were the featured presenters at an environmental education conference organized by Vlad BG.  We’d seen this event on our itinerary prior to the trip and not thought much about it, but now it was being billed as a much bigger deal that several higher-ups would be attending, the U.S. Consulate for Vladivostok among them.  There would also be a couple TV crews.  I suddenly regretted not brining a dress shirt or tie.  Oh well.

The conference was being held in the auditorium of the nearby Institute of Marine Biology.  Vlad is a major port serving this part of the world, and a fishing hub to boot.  As such, marine biology is much better funded than botany, and this favoritism was reflected in the well-kept building beautifully perched on the shoreline overlooking Peter the Great Bay.  The interior was bright white, pristine and filled with natural light.  The auditorium was smallish, but the stadium seating allowed for at least 200 people.  There were about 60 in attendance for the conference.

Our colleagues from Vlad BG were up first, filling everyone in on their efforts to establish an EE program, and referencing their visit to Seattle.  It was a good segue into my presentation on the UWBG.  I’ve done a version of this presentation during the last few guide trainings, and could almost give it in my sleep, so I hadn’t felt the need to rehearse.  Delivering a talk through a translator, however, is a whole different ball of wax.  Fortunately, my translator was Tony, who knows the garden every bit as well as I do, so whatever gaps I left, he filled in.  It was very much a tag-team effort and as if by design, we finished exactly at our allotted time 45 mins.  There was 30 mins. carved out for questions, and to my surprise, the audience used every second of it – they were captivated!  It felt good to have come through for our hosts who had kind of gone out on a limb to have us there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a brief lunch break and were then given a tour of the museum housed on the top floor.  It was modest in size, but really cool, featuring sections of a Blue Whale skeleton and countless other sea creatures large and small.  My favorite part was this hokie little video illustrating how whales evolved from land animals (I’ll try to attach it).  After our tour, it was time for Sally and I to give our joint talk titled, “Environmental Education:  Theory and Practice”.  I presented the first half going over the what, who, why and how of EE.  This was followed up by Sally using the Mountains to Sound Greenway as a case study and then back to me to talk about EE at the Arboretum.  To our great delight, the audience was very interested in all of it.  During the intermission afterwards people were gushing at how interesting my part had been and one woman even asked where I was published.  I felt like a rock star, especially b/c I had given a rough version of this talk during guide training last spring that nearly put everyone to sleep.

After our joint presentation, Sally presented more in depth on the Greenway.  She had managed to send her slides over well enough in advance to have them translated into Russian, and so tall Katya, one of the Vlad BG staff, was the one to actually deliver the information.  It was so robotic and quick, though, that Sally pretty much re-presented everything during the Q&A session.  While they have protected natural areas in the Russian Far East (“zapopriedniks”), this concept of working with business interests to link together large tracts of land as wildlife corridors is a new one for them.  This foreign way of doing things was beautifully illustrated by a question from Pavol who asked, “So how do you force the businesses to compromise with you”.  After Sally, there were a slew of very brief presentations from various groups doing EE in the region, including a high school student who spoke about how they were promoting “tiger day” at their school.  It was not the last we would hear of tiger day.

The conference ended around 5pm, there was another hour or schmoozing and picture taking, and everyone could finally take a big breath of relief.  We had done it and it was a complete success.  But our day was not over, not by a long shot.  It turned out that we now had a meeting to go to with an organization known as the Phoenix Foundation located in downtown Vlad.  I would have been pissed about this if not for the character we would meet when we got there, Alexander, my new hero.  He’s a former botanist turned biology teacher turned EE activist who is sharper than a tack with the energy of a Jack Russell on speed.  The small outfit of which he is a part (I think they are 6), is dedicated to stopping poachers, raising awareness of Primoria’s incredible biodiversity, and developing educational materials for teachers to use in the classroom.  They’re also responsible for making tiger day something of a national holiday around these parts.  To top it all off, he took us up on the roof for a bird’s eye view of Vlad.