Archive forMisc

2014

I don’t usually get all reflecty at the end of the year, but 2014 has been more of a year than most, I guess. It reminded me in a way of 2004, a year in which I received a second degree, got engaged, moved to a new state, got a new job (which I still have!), traveled internationally for the first time, and got married. Those last four things were in the same month! Likewise, 2014 saw me doing a lot of different things and fulfilling dreams.

The year began inauspiciously enough: shortly after we returned from Christmas spent in Charleston, SC with Mark’s family, Mark’s uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer. This has been the worst thing about 2014 and in fact whenever I think about how great 2014 was to me, I think about how hard it’s been for Mark’s aunt and uncle and the rest of their family. And in Virginia, the beginning of 2014 was so cold they had to invent new words to describe it, like polar vortex. I shoveled so much snow I felt like an honorary Canadian, although unlike some parts of Canada, the temperatures of the Mid-Atlantic fluctuate enough that even a foot or two of snow usually melts within a few days, so although I occasionally drove Mark’s Jeep instead of my snow-hating Miata, I did keep from going cabin-crazy and I never once missed any of my weekend volunteer work.

Right around the beginning of the year my volunteer work officially expanded to include raptors as well as raccoons. In addition to cleaning cages and exercising and feeding the raptors on a weekly basis, I help out with the programs to which we take our education birds on weekday evenings. I attended WAY more Cub Scout meetings in 2014 than I EVER thought I would!

The frigid bite of winter was offset a bit when I made the down payment for our trip to Tanzania in February. From that moment forward, I had warm, sunny Africa on my mind a good 70% of the time. I spent HOURS preparing. I pre-ordered a special lens for the trip and when it finally arrived, took every chance I could to practice with it on the wildlife I could find around here. Probably the highlight was the magical day I found these foxes play-fighting:

In February, I took my car – a 1995 Miata with 150k miles – into the shop for repeated alignments when it began pulling to the right and wouldn’t stop despite their efforts to diagnose the problem. My mechanic lent me his personal car – a 2004 Miata turbo with racing upgrades – one of the days he had my car as he was determined to solve the problem even though it doesn’t actually prevent it from being safely driven, and long story short, Mark bought the 2004 for me a couple of days later! As I was (and still am) extremely attached to my ’95, I never expected to get a “new” car, and especially not two weeks after buying a trip to Africa! And after years of poking fun at people like my brother, father, Fortinbras, and Mark for owning more than one car, I now own two cars. (I joke a lot about the luxury of having two Miatas – seriously, it IS rather convenient at times! – and the combined blue book value of the two cars is probably a third or less of the cost of most of the cars in my neighborhood, but I feel REALLY spoiled.) AND ONE IS A RACE CAR.

Spring finally arrived and was so welcome I spent every possible moment outdoors. I bolted out of the office every afternoon and headed immediately for a park. I luxuriated in fields of bluebells! I discovered tons of parks I had never had the chance to visit or never even knew about. I realized that as built-up as Northern Virginia is, we have an amazing combination of regional, state, and national parks and trails that kept me busy exploring night after night.

Spring never actually ended…the hot and humid summers this area is notorious for never arrived this year. Instead we pretty much had spring from April to September. I may not have loved it as much if we still had a pool, but as far as my nightly hikes were concerned, summer ’14 was AMAZING. It was like my reward for suffering through the brutal winter. I was in seventh heaven: every single afternoon saw me headed to a different park, hiking for miles and taking pictures, driving home with the top down as the sun set. We didn’t even go on a proper summer vacation and yet it was the happiest summer I’ve had for a while.

Mark and I discovered a mutual love of kayaking early on in the season and every weekend after I’d finished up with the raptors or raccoons, we’d rent a couple of kayaks and paddle for a few hours. Spending time on the water in that way only deepened my appreciation for the area we live in. I loved spending time IN the Potomac in addition to gazing down UPON it. Mark and I plan to buy our own kayaks for next season. Meanwhile, we introduced my brother to kayaking and he’d come down every few weekends throughout the summer to accompany us. I took Fortinbras kayaking for his birthday. We dragged Smucky out with us during his annual summer visit:

I started running, which is TOTALLY weird. I HATE running. Really hate it. But in an effort to get treadmill workouts over with faster, I started running for part of them. Eventually I gained enough confidence to do easy trail runs, which of course I prefer to being inside and as I mentioned, this summer was AWESOME for running outside, even if I couldn’t quite believe I was willing to risk people SEEING me attempt to run. I ran my first 5k this fall – by which I mean I ran 5k without stopping to walk any of it – and that feat was actually part of a 5-mile total run (it was not a race event; just me on the treadmill) I did in an hour. Honestly, out of all the stuff that happened in 2014, the fact that I RAN is to me by far the oddest. I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you had told me on January 1, 2014 that I’d be (mostly) running 4 to 5 miles at a time.

Possibly related, I lost weight. I don’t own a scale so I don’t know how much or what I started out at – I was never overweight but definitely weighed more than I did in college – but several people have TOLD me I’ve lost weight so I guess I must have. Well, that and the fact that I had to buy new pants, some of which are size 2 and still require a belt. 🙂

I switched from Linux to Mac which is another thing I’d have told you on 1/1/14 that I would NEVER do. It wasn’t due to frustration with Linux (which has gotten MUCH easier to use for personal computing over the years) but because I wanted to try Adobe Lightroom (so I guess it WAS therefore frustration that Lightroom hasn’t been ported to Linux), and also because I wanted the smallest, lightest, but still usable – including with Lightroom – laptop I could get to take to Africa and I just couldn’t find something that beat the 13″ Macbook Air or its outstanding battery life. As it turns out, I LOVE the Air. I thought I’d use it only for travel but as it turns out I haven’t even opened my Ubuntu Thinkpad or my work laptop since I got the Mac. I also LOVE Lightroom, although I remain deathly afraid of Photoshop. I’m slowly trying to improve my photo processing skills, which is an ongoing battle.

Then I WENT TO AFRICA, which was my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but my thoughts about that are too much for this post, so see the several previous and upcoming posts about that. I’ll just say it was phenomenally awesome. While there Mark and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary, which means we’ve been married for a DECADE, which is CRAZY.

I came home from Africa and found that winter had pretty much begun again in Virginia and I felt a little like the glory of the year was ending. The days are far too short – and often too cold and/or wet – for me to go to parks after work. And I had difficulty accepting the fact that when I DID make it to a park there weren’t any lions there. So I started a Photo365 project to try to inspire me to enjoy photography other than wildllife photography on the days I can’t get to any wildlife. I broadened the project theme to any portraiture (instead of my original theme of just self-portraits) to give me a break from taking pictures of myself if I happen to find a willing victim model some days, but 95% of the time it’s still going to be pictures of me, which is a bit hard to swallow because I almost universally look terrible in photographs. I didn’t have high expectations for my commitment to this project because I thought it was going to be pretty difficult to think of 365 ways of hiding behind a cat for a photograph ;). But then Mother Nature graced me with two consecutive weekends of very nice hiking weather and I managed to go for a hike every day of the last two weekends, which provided me the opportunity to take a few self-portraits outside, where I’m happiest, though there are no cats to hide my face behind. (Why, oh, why are there no lions in Virginia parks??) And I learned that I CAN actually take a picture of myself that I don’t hate, and I don’t even have to turn my back to the camera (although I liked this one and used it as this Saturday’s photo):

In fact, this weekend I ended up with way more photos than I needed for the project and I don’t really know what to DO with them. I don’t actually have a USE for a bunch of photos of myself. I guess if Mark and I ever get a divorce, I’ve got an arsenal of photos I can put on dating sites that might not make people gag, haha. The one above and the one below were taken Saturday in my favorite-place-that’s-not-Africa: Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which probably explains my easy smile.

Sunday I went to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, which is just across the bay from and part of the same complex as Occoquan Bay. I don’t got there nearly as often because there just aren’t the same opportunities for wildlife viewing (although there are a LOT of migrating tundra swans there right now), but I’m so glad I went on Sunday afternoon because the lighting in the forest was GORGEOUS. This was the photo I selected for the project for that day:

… but I took several others that I don’t hate.

So I’m actually rather surprised by the “success” of this Photo365 project as I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera – I read some articles on how to pose for portraits so I don’t always look like I have a double chin – and I’m being forced to get better at photo editing. Now that I’ve gotten a bunch of pictures of “Renae in nature”, I’m going to have to start coming up with more creative ideas for the daily pics, which is really hard because although I’m a LITTLE more at ease in front of the camera, I’ve learned that I look positively DREADFUL if I don’t smile in photos. Basically I can deal with the results if I’m flashing the camera my winning smile (haha), but other than that, I’m at a loss.

But enough about me. Those pictures of me don’t make me want to puke, which is nice, but look how BEAUTIFUL my walk was Sunday:

I feel like I’ve just spent a bunch of time gloating about how great my life is, and in a way I guess I have. But know how grateful I am for that, and how much I treasure and appreciate it. And to be fair, maybe some or even a lot of it is just having the right attitude. Maybe I could have found 14 paragraphs of negative things to say about the last year…though for this year in particular that probably would be hard – I WENT TO AFRICA! – but I’ve learned over the years how to concentrate on the good and the beautiful and not dwell on the bad and the ugly. I do feel like a particularly lucky person, though. A lot of this year has been characterized by my wishes coming true – some of them for material things (lenses! laptops! cars!) and some of them for more esoteric things. As a small example, last weekend I went to Prince William Forest Park and I saw but could not photograph a pileated woodpecker before he flew off into the deep forest. I only have one very blurry photo of a pileated woodpecker taken a couple of years ago. I mentioned to my father that I missed getting a picture of that bird and how BADLY I wanted to take one. Then this weekend at Occoquan, what does the universe deliver to me?

And did the universe stop there? No, the universe thought I might also like to see a fox since it can’t give me lions right now.

These were taken with a 50mm lens, which I mention to tell you how close he was to me. If you aren’t into photography, that means he was very close to me. 🙂

And maybe this post has been an explanation of why I so rarely updated this blog this year and when I do I usually don’t have recipes. GEEZ, I’m busy. Busy, but grateful. Happy holidays and a very happy new year to all of you.

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Serengeti

If I had to pick a favorite place in Tanzania, I’d say I didn’t want to, because the entire trip was so, so, so great. But if I absolutely, positively HAD to pick a favorite place, I’m going to have to say it was the Serengeti. The Serengeti was a bit of a surprise for me because its elevation is higher than I realized and it’s therefore not as oppressively hot as I thought it was going to be, and it was much greener than I thought it would be at the end of the dry season. Basically the Serengeti was even more awesome than I thought it was going to be. So was the place we stayed, but more on that in a moment. The Serengeti is also full of (big) cats so I have a ton of cat pictures! Okay, the Serengeti is pretty much the greatest place on this planet and I’d be perfectly happy to go spend the rest of my life there.

To get from the crater to the Serengeti, we had to hop on a tiny (you had to crawl to your seat) little plane and fly for about 45 minutes. The pilot purposely flew over the Great Migration (of zebras and wildebeests) before we landed and tipped the plane so we could see it:

We were met by our guide, Jairo, at the airport and he immediately whisked us off on a safari. But before I get to safari pictures, let me talk about where we stayed. Our itinerary said we’d be staying in a mobile tented camp, one that moves every couple of months to follow the migration. I’m sure that would have been cool and Mark was looking forward to “roughing it” in an even more rustic tent than the one we stayed in in Tarangire, but for some reason our itinerary was wrong and we were deposited at Lamai Serengeti, which is the GREATEST PLACE EVER. This was by far the best place I have stayed while traveling. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that our 10th wedding anniversary (which we celebrated there) may have ALMOST been even more crazy-awesome than our actual wedding, and our wedding – which was held in a Scottish castle – was pretty damn amazing.

I guess the only other “bad” thing was the walk to our room was kind of long and steep:

But that’s only “bad” until you finally get to the room …

… and you realize you have complete and utter solitude. And then you walk in and see this:

This is about 2/3s of the bathroom. Yes the entire wall is a window and no, privacy was not a concern. No one can really access the area on that side of the building.

And then you walk out on the balcony and peer in:

And in the morning, the rising sun awakes you, filling your entire room from the wall of window, and you crawl out from between the mosquito netting and you retrieve the hot tea or coffee that’s been delivered to your door before you awoke, and you walk out on the balcony and watch the sun continue to rise. And you never want to leave, ever.

So yeah, I don’t know how or why we ended up there (Lamai is part of the same company as the nomad place I thought we were staying in, so it’s not THAT mysterious) but it was so very fortuitous. And the FOOD! Was so good! But I’m going to do a whole post on the whole food/vegan thing, so I’ll rhapsodize there soon.

At Lamai, we would wake up just in time to watch the sun rise, then immediately hustle off to safari. Unlike the other places we stayed where we had breakfast at the lodge before heading out, our guide packed a breakfast for us and we ate it out on the plains after driving for a while – Jairo would set up a table and put out a whole spread. It was really nice. Then we’d drive around some more then head back to Lamai for lunch. After lunch and maybe a quick swim in the pool, we’d do an afternoon drive until the sun set. Then it was time for drinks and dinner. Basically I have just described what I consider to be an absolutely perfect day, and we had three of them. 🙂

This is a picture of Lamai taken just after sunset as we were on our way back for dinner one night. I think the room that is closest in the foreground is Smucky and Olivia’s and ours is off-camera to the right. To the left in the mid-ground is the common area where meals were served.

To me the Serengeti looked like another planet. Another, really awesome planet. There were a lot of boulders in the areas we spent the most time (although the Serengeti is very vast and looks quite different in other areas), it’s just unlike any landscape we have at home:

Animals we saw included giraffes:

Klipspringers:

Warthogs:

Rock agama:

Cape buffalo:

Zebras:

Hyena:

Baboons:

AFRICAN DEATH STICK:

LIONS LIONS LIONS!! I have so many incredible lion pictures from the Serengeti I’m finding it really hard to restrain myself and not post all of them!!

Olivia needs to Photoshop the twigs out of this one for me (Photoshop is TOO HARD!) because they are very distracting but he’s SO CUTE I can’t delete the picture!

Oh my gosh I have so many! I can’t stop posting them! Just one more!

But wait, lions aren’t the only cat! Oh, no! Could there possibly be a better way to start your day than to engage in a staring contest with a LEOPARD???

She’s chasing an impala in this photo, hoping for breakfast:

Here is a different leopard in a tree!

I love you, leopard.

But what OTHER kinds of cats live in the Serengeti? CHEETAHS!!

Baby cheetah:

This was a funny incident from our final safari. We found this cheetah lounging about looking beautiful:

Then her cub saw some gazelles off in the distance and goaded her into chasing after them:

So she obligingly headed off in their direction, but then she hit a nice patch of dirt and just flopped down mid-stride and rolled around like a total goofball! IT WAS THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, EVER!

As you can tell, the cats were once again my absolute favorite and we saw a ton of them and I was pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but what a lot of people go to the Serengeti hoping to see is the Great Migration. We were fortunate to witness a “crossing” – herds of wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River. Not everyone gets to see such an event – the manager at Lamai told me she’s lived there for 5 years and has still not managed to see one – so when Jairo spotted some wildebeests looking like they might take the plunge, from a good mile away at least (safari guides have AMAZING eyesight), he ROCKETED over to the river so we wouldn’t miss it.

What a spectacle! Why is it kind of a rare opportunity? Because even if you do manage to time your drive so that you encounter a herd at the right time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be brave enough to follow through. We later saw a “near-crossing” when a bunch of zebras tried to push each other into the water, but no one was brave enough to go first and they eventually retreated. It’s very dangerous for them to cross and many of them don’t make it. They either drown or are devoured by:

And yes, we saw a few crocs staring down the brave animals we saw crossing. I was very worried for them but all the animals I saw crossed successfully.

I’d better wrap it up here as that has been a LOT of pictures. Okay, ONE MORE, here is the last wildlife photo I had the opportunity to take on safari. It was just about time for that lazy guy to wake up and go hunting!

Next: exotic, spicy ZANZIBAR!

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Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:

Hyena:

Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.

(PS LOOK AT THOSE SPOTS!)

But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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