Category Archives: Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: California National Parks, June 2015

Author: Lucy Fowler Williams, Associate Curator/Sabloff Keeper, American Collections, Penn Museum

In June I had the amazing opportunity to participate on a Penn Alumni Travel tour to the northern California National Parks including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.  We saw and learned so much that, among other things, the trip altered my thoughts about guided tours. If you want real R&R, expert insight into nature, history, and the cultural aspects of what you are seeing, and to cover a lot of ground getting to amazing places, this kind of trip is for you.

Yosemite Trees

Yosemite Trees

The group included two tour guides and 42! university alumni representing Penn, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Perdue, the University of Texas, Columbia, and Boston University. After our first happy-hour we were all old friends, and it stayed that way for the full nine days! We started out in San Francisco, but beat feet to Sonoma Valley’s wine country where we toured the Kunde Family Winery, a five-generation vineyard. After sampling the Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, AND the Cabernet, we entered the underground wine caves and sipped from an unfinished barrel of red while listening to legends of the family business. Though my personal preferences tend toward gin, tequila, or aqvavit, this visit definitely rekindled my interest in California wines.  Just yesterday I found Kunde Estate wines in the Pennsylvania liquor store.

From Sonoma we headed east into the Sierra Nevada, and eventually climbed 6,225 feet to Lake Tahoe, the highest and largest alpine lake in the United States.   I’ve wanted to see Tahoe for a long time and in fact it is what inspired me to sign onto the trip.  Though there in the wrong season, and without my skies, I was not disappointed. An incredible blue, Tahoe is 21 miles long and an impressive 1,600 feet deep, surrounded by snow-covered peaks.

Lake Tahoe 2

Lake Tahoe

As a specialist in Native American material culture, it was my pleasure to fill the group in on the fact that while a vacation retreat and tourist destination for many, Lake Tahoe is also the spiritual center and place of origin of the Washoe Indian people, and remains as such today. Through my lectures, I introduced the weaving traditions of Washoe and northern California Indian tribes, some of the finest basketry in the world.  In the late 1800s, weavers skillfully adapted their work to meet the demands of the burgeoning tourist industry in California.  The American Craftsman Movement (1895-1920) celebrated handmade Indian weaving and encouraged a collecting obsession of Indian art across the country.  This was also the Golden Age of Museums, and it is no surprise that the Penn Museum houses exceptional California baskets, of which I shared many examples.  The tragic irony of saving Indian art while killing off Indian people was not lost on my audience.  Later in the trip I introduced NAGPRA and the repatriation movement with a special focus on issues important to California tribes today.

A Mono Lake Paiute basket at the Yosemite Museum

A Mono Lake Paiute basket at the Yosemite Museum

From Tahoe we traveled east over the Sierras and into Nevada’s Mono and Paiute Indian country, back into California, past Mono Lake (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen), and entered Yosemite National Park from the east.   We spent two days in Yosemite, taking in all of the sites along the Valley floor (Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the Ahwhannee Hotel named after the Chief of the tribe that inhabited the Valley), and had free time for hiking on ones own or for group tours. My son took off on the 7 mile hike to Nevada Falls, and I spent the afternoon with Barbara Beroza, the Curator of the Yosemite Museum, looking behind the scenes at Washoe, Paiute, and Miwok Indian baskets, and with Phil Johnson, a Miwok/Paiute interpreter in the gallery. Phil showed me a clever and rarely collected woodpecker trap, a long and skinny twinned basket that is tied to a tree over a hole where the ubiquitous woodpeckers are nesting!

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

From Yosemite we spent two more gorgeous days in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Sequoia is less travelled and incredibly vast and wild. In addition to much welcomed snow and rain, we saw an abundance of woodpeckers and blue Steller’s Jays, and a total of seven black bears eating grass in open meadows.

But the highlight of the trip was the magnificent Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, the world’s largest living trees that are well protected and cared for in these parks. The General Sherman and General Grant trees standing 275 and 268 feet tall, respectively, were massive and incredibly impressive. While taking them in, I revisited John Muir’s writings and the early history and struggle to secure these incredible parks.  I was continually awed by the grandeur of the woods and reminded of the difference a single person’s actions can make.  And it was a pleasure to be traveling with so many like-minded enthusiasts of nature and of our National Parks.

Sherman Tree

Sherman Tree

With reluctance, we descended west from the cool, quiet, and lush seclusion of Sequoia and across the northern edge of the Central Valley, aka “the Salad bowl.” Impressively, this region grows a staggering one half of the produce in the United States! and we passed mile after mile of thriving walnut, pistachio, almond, peach, pear, nectarine, plum, cherry, and date trees, acres of lettuce, miles of artichokes, and on and on.  After a private tour and elegant dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we ended our trip at Carmel By the Sea with a tour of the still active Carmel Mission Church, established by Spanish Jesuits in 1793.

The trip gave me the opportunity to experience some of the United State’s most incredible natural beauty, where some of Penn Museum’s California collections were made and used, and time to reflect on the importance of our mission to steward and share those collections broadly.

[Interested in traveling with Penn Alumni Travel? Visit our 2016 schedule here. We will be visiting the Southwest National Parks in September 2016.]

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The Pride of South Africa

Author: David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English & Comparative Literature

Our group first convened at the Fairlawns Hotel, Sandton, Johannesburg, on Friday 6 February 2015. Most travellers had been met at Joburg airport by Tina Kistenmacher, representing Gohagan, our travel company. Tina proved to be a colossus of organizational finesse from the beginning to the end of our journey. Usually she rode herd at the back of the group, keeping a low profile, but if problems arose she would move to the front– and we would notice that she was athletic, very tall, and gently persuasive; she speaks four languages.Tina Kistenmacher

Our itinerary was rather complex, and we never slept in the same place for more than two nights. There were internal flights, and we crossed and re-crossed borders between South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.  This itinerary had never been tried before, although a Gohagan rep. had made a “dry run” to test things out. Everything worked amazingly well, and the group bonded right from the start. The group was small, with seven Penn alums, plus myself as current Penn Faculty, and smaller groups from the two USCs: Southern Cal, including environmentalist Roberto Delgado, and South Carolina.  There were just sixteen of us in all, which was the perfect size for this particular adventure.

Our first full day saw us set off in the tracks of Nelson Mandela. We saw the house in Houghton where he lived with his third wife, Graca, and then the house where he died. Memorial stones had been left by people from all over the world:

Rocks

We then headed towards Soweto, the locality in Johannesburg most famously associated with the struggle against apartheid. En route we passed five well-groomed pitches where the boys of St John’s School were playing cricket at 9.30 in the morning:

Cricket

Progress through Soweto was slow, since funerals are held there only on Saturdays so that working people might attend. About 300 funerals take place every week, and many of the dead have succumbed to AIDS– still a critical health issue. Houses are generally small, with many children on the street, many of them orphans. Nonetheless, despite obvious hardships entrepreneurial spirit was clearly alive in Soweto, with makeshift spaces on the street for shoe repair and hair cutting:PeopleHomes

First stop in Soweto was Vilakazi Street, reputedly the only street where one Nobel Prizewinner lived at one end (Desmond Tutu) and another at the other (Nelson Mandela). The modest house in which the Mandelas had lived, complete with bullet holes from opportunistic drive-by shooters, has become a shrine for African visitors, keen to record their visit:Vilakazi Street

We drove past the site, close by, where 13-year-old schoolboy Hector Pieterson had been shot by police on 16 June 1976, sparking mass protests, and we visited the museum dedicated to his memory. The image of the dying Hector being carried away, with his sister Antoinette at his side, rates as one of the most powerful, galvanizing photographs of the twentieth century. It was thus a great privilege for us to meet and talk with Antoinette. She is a person of great poise and gentleness, and it is to me a great mystery how any person could emerge from such trauma (on the left in the photograph, holding up her right hand) to become such a spiritual, recollected person:Hector PietersonAntoinette

We lunched at a Soweto restaurant established to support local families, especially those affected by AIDS, as the proprietor explained. The food and local beer were excellent:Food

We then headed out past the stadium at which World Cup soccer games had been played to the Apartheid Museum, our next scheduled stop. Suddenly the rains came pouring down, and we learned that the museum was closed for the day due to one of the ‘rolling blackouts’ that plague South Africa. These failures to deliver electricity continue to embarrass the RSA government, since business grinds to a halt and nothing can be planned. So all we got of this museum was a quick glimpse through a rainy window:Museum

Happily, however, inspired contingency planning led us directly to Liliesleaf, the farmhouse in a white suburb that had served as a front and hiding place for leading anti-apartheid activists from 1961-3, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu. On 11 July 1963 this property was raided, many activists were arrested, and Mandela’s (incriminating) papers were found; this led to a trail, with Mandela as suspect #1. That evening, amazingly, back at our hotel, we were able to meet with Robin Binkes, son of one of the men arrested in July 1963 and the leading figure in preserving Liliesleaf for the nation. Robin talked of Jewish and Muslim contributions to the struggle, and of the struggle itself. He joined us for dinner, but then had to return home early after his wife had been hit by a flying champagne cork:Liliesleaf

Next day we headed off early towards Pretoria, stopping off at the imposing Vortrekker monument, built by Gerard Moerdijk to last a thousand years:

Vortrekker monument

Pieter, our congenial Afrikaaner guide, gave booming commentary on his Boer ancestors. The carved reliefs within the monument often emphasized the decisive role played by Boer women when their men wimped out:

carved reliefs

The first public building glimpsed as we headed into Pretoria was the prison in which blade-runner Oscar Pretorius is currently confined. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but given the usual 10% of time served in RSA will likely be out by the end of 2015 (under house arrest). Next we saw the massive, colonial-era Union Building, whose two wings represented English and Afrikaaner rule. Nowadays both wings are best viewed through the arms of the giant Mandela statue set in front of them, a favourite spot for wedding portraits:giant Mandela statue

Following a quick lunch we interviewed a friendly ostrich, who was happy not to be on the menu (as ostrich was later in the week):ostrich

We then headed to Joburg airport for the flight to Cape Town. While awaiting the plane, Philadelphia Judge Harvey Bartle III (L 65) caught up with local news, while Natalie Akin Bartle diligently caught up with her homework for my first lecture:Judge Harvey Bartle III L 65

In Cape Town we transferred to the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel without a hitch. This hotel was opened in 1899 but was immediately requisitioned by the British as campaign HQ for the Second Boer war; Winston Churchill declared it to be “a most excellent and well appointed establishment.” First thing next morning we headed straight up Table Mountain by cable car and shared a magnificent view with dassies, cute creatures of the rocks:dassies

Also found at the summit was a letter box from the reign of King Edward VII (ruled 1901-10):letter box

Such a flood of discoveries encouraged the Penn Alumni group to pose for its first collective picture. The weather was one moment cloudy, the next moment clear; here we seem to find some Scotch mist:Group

At the foot of Signal Hill, en route to the waterfront, we passed through Bo-Kaap, home to Cape Town’s Muslim community. The bright colours here contrast with the raw holes in the ground left in District Six, when in 1960 the homes of Cape Town blacks were razed, and their inhabitants forcibly removed.Bo-Kaap

Such reflections stayed with us as we crossed by boat (40 minutes) from Cape Town to Robben Island, site of imprisonment for Nelson Mandela and many other male anti-apartheid campaigners. The natural setting was beautiful, but the history grim. We first saw the small house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, was was held in solitary confinement. The smaller buildings to the right are actually dog kennels, and they are bigger in size than the average Robben Island cell:Robben Island

We next saw the lime pits where prisoners such as Mandela were set to work for eight hours a day. The work had no practical purpose but bad side effects, as the dust affected breathing and eye-sight; Mandela was sensitive, in later years, to flash photography.lime pits

At the main prison block we had the great good fortune to meet with Itumeleng Makwele, who had himself been a prisoner in that very place.Itumeleng Makwele

Itumeleng told how the regime tried to break prisoner solidarity by issuing identity cards (in prison!), with each man graded A, B, C, or D, and incentivized to ‘improve’ his status by compliant behavior. The prisoners countered this by organizing a hunger strike. Itumeleng, a cook, was obliged to take food to each prisoner, and then to bring it back uneaten.identity cards

Next day we headed south from Cape Town towards Cape Point, stopping en route at Boulders, home to African penguins:African penguins

Hundreds of pictures were taken, and everyone has their prize exhibit:

LonePenguin

We then headed further south, to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, viewed here from a lighthouse built in Greenwich, London, in 1857:Cape Point

This is where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, and where water temperature to the east becomes, after just a few miles, noticeably warmer than the temperature to the west. At the Cape of Good Hope itself we posed for a collective group picture, and I was able to censor an attempt by the USC (CA branch) to smuggle in their banner:Cape of Good Hope

We then headed to Steenburg Vineyards, pausing only to acknowledge a soulful baboon posing in the top of a small tree:baboon

These vineyards in the Constantia valley are surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on a fourth, providing a distinctive micro-environment for viniculture:Constantia valley

The Penn alums then conducted intensive research on a long flight of wines; the Nebbiolo won by a short nose:wines

Next day we caught an early flight to Kasane, Botswana, and then headed out on water to complete the most relaxed, chilled-out immigration procedures ever as we headed from Botswana (on one bank of the Zambesi) to Namibia (on the other). This pointer to Immigration tells us that we are a long way from JFK:Immigration

On first arriving at the immigration post we found nobody at home at all: just a friendly yellow dog. Eventually a lady with her baby came out to stamp our passports, and we headed back down the dirt track to find our boat for the next few nights, the Zambesi Queen:dirt track

The Zambesi Queen has something of the look of a Mississippi riverboat as it glides gently along. The cabins are spacious, and everything is set up beautifully for spotting the endless parade of wildlife and exotic birds:Zambesi Queen

At this point in our journey the mood changed and relaxed somewhat. In my first lecture I had contrasted Nadine Gordimer as a Johannesburg writer to J.M. Coetzee as a Cape Town writer, and we had considered Gordimer’s last novel No Time Like the Present as, in part, a gently satirical commentary on Coetzee’s decision to abandon South Africa for Australia. Our experience of each city helped us to understand the tensions explored in this her last novel, written in her late eighties. On board the Queen, however, we considered the more relaxed topic of Botswana as an African success story. The alums were so relaxed that before my lecture the ladies disappeared behind the screen of my Powerpoint, onto the rear deck, to celebrate the buying of new jewellery with a collective photograph. Once returned, however, they responded with comments as sharp and incisive as ever. I was able to enter into this newly relaxed mood on returning to my cabin, with its own outside balcony. This must rate as my best workplace ever; sunsets were Cecil B. de Spectacular:sunset

From the first, next day, birds and animals began presenting themselves in ever more spectacular postures:bird

We travelled both by the Queen and in smaller vessels that enabled us to nose our way into private parts of the river. Here we approach hippo parents with baby:Hippo

And here we realize, just in time, that Daddy Hippo is giving us the eye– by way of saying, back off:Hippo2

A carmine bee-eater appeared on one bank, and an African fish eagle on the other:eagle

Bee-eater

We switched to smaller craft to cruise the Chobe river, and to visit Kasenu village. Some sixty people live here, all from one family. In earlier generations the elders would select a marriage partner from a neighboring village, but nowadays the young people are free to choose for themselves. Trees are of great importance here: we saw an aphrodisiac tree, an abortion tree, and a tree to shade the chief of the village. We also saw a TV satellite dish: the African Cup of Nations soccer competition was being followed everywhere during our trip.Kasenu village

Victor, grandson of the chief, explained how things work to Lise and Tom Elkind (C 73):grandson

We set out on further wildlife adventuring, and I decided that for me nothing is more exciting and moving than seeing long lines of elephants on their slow and stately way, like a people of the plains:elephants

It was also wonderful to see them come down to the water, and to water themselves, and then frolic and play. They arrive grey, get black when wet, then throw mud over themselves:Elephants2

One fears for the little ones, of course, because not every creature at the water’s edge is a benign herbivore:Croc

Our last night on the Zambesi Queen opened with a locally-produced feast, and the singing of the Namibian national anthem:anthem

The capo Wayne is South African, but all the rest of the crew is Namibian. The company sent Wayne’s deputy, John, a Namibian local, to study for his pilot’s license, and he is set to succeed Wayne shortly. The crew work one week on, one week off, and seem happy with their life and work. They initiated some round-the-table dancing towards the end of the evening, and then persuaded some distinguished Penn alums to join them. Photos are available from me, by private application and for a large fee.dance

Early next day we left the Zambesi Queen and Namibia for a game drive in Chobe National Park, Botswana. It was now Friday 13th February, but all went well– and by now, we had quite lost track of days of the week. In fact, the absence of wifi on the Queen was one of its more relaxing aspects, coupled with its gently swaying up and down the river on its mooring at night. Most of us had taken malaria pills, but insects were never a serious issue, and the hardy Tina (who took no pills) simply doused herself with insect-repellent lotion and slept with her balcony door open– so that she could hear the amorous bellowings of hippos by night.

We first thought that a dry game drive might be an anti-climax after our animal sightings by water, but this was not the case: we saw some animals, such as elephants, from different perspectives and some from much closer quarters than before. Giraffes, for example:Giraffes

When elephants blocked the way of our safari buggy, we graciously gave way– you can see that the camera work here was a tad shaky:Elephant3

Impala, unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, had the sense to hide from the mid-day sun:Impala

Finally we caught up with our bus and our luggage, decanted ourselves inside, and then headed for the Zimbabwe border. This, we thought, might be our trickiest transfer, and there was indeed quite a long tail-back of lorries and busses at the border. But we sailed to the front of the line, and were through very quickly (although the wait seemed long). We were briefed to put on our seat belts, and to take no pictures of any police stopping points that we might see. But we were never stopped, and were soon heading deep into Zimbabwe. Our driver made the correct right turn at just the right moment:Zambia

The Victoria Falls Hotel, set in extensive grounds, turned out to be yet one more glorious monument to English colonial style, c. 1900-1930:English colonial

The mosquito net in my bedroom was not needed, but it added an exotic touch; warthogs and monkeys could be seen frolicking on the lawn below:bedroom

Valentine’s Day saw us heading out to the vast body of water, a mile across, a million gallons a second, known as Mosi-Oa-Tunya (but renamed Victoria Falls by Dr David Livingstone in 1855). Vellon Phiri, our local Zimbabwean guide, was happy to give us pronunciation lessons, and then to pose beneath Livingstone’s massive statue:Vellon Phiri

Equipped with poncho style black raingear, like a strange order of monks, we processed to the Falls:VictoriaFalls

Spray from the thunderous falls, which can be seen from far away, has created a tropical micro-climate in which delicate plants flourish:Plant

Veterinarians Judy Shekmar and Steve Cantner (V 76), who have owned and run the Bryn Mawr Veterinary Hospital for more than thirty years, went ape went spotting vervet monkeys by the Falls:Judy ShekmaSteve Cantner

Before leaving the Falls the Penn alums posed in their wetgear for one last photo; the banner here is held by Judy Shekmar and Betsy Kleeblatt (CW 68):

groupatfalls

Before returning to the hotel we stopped off at a local market. Traders were never forceful, but they were keen to relieve us of our cash and, failing that, of our socks and hats. There are reports of one visitor returning to the hotel almost naked, with a bag full of wooden bowls and statutes. I held onto my Alumni cap but, next day, donated my Phillies cap– perhaps someone else wearing it will bring us better luck:local market

Back at the hotel the Penn group scrubbed up nice and presented itself for our Penn alumni wine reception:winereception

This convivial drinks party immediately preceded Roberto Delgado’s second lecture on bio-diversity in the region, and on what we can all do to help protect the environment. Clear-cutting to produce Palm Oil leads to extensive deforestation of virgin rain forest, he told us, so Honey Nut Cheerios and Dove soap are now off the menu. Finally, the day ended with (another) sumptuous dinner. Next day the group flew from Victoria Falls airport to Johannesburg, and from there we went our separate ways. The main group of alums headed to the MalaMala game reserve, and I flew back to London to continue my sabbatical. The birdlife that I have found here so far has been far from exotic:pigeon

But I am warmed by the memory of the wonderful friendships so quickly formed among our intrepid group of sixteen. And I realize that in a sense your life can be divided between the time before you saw elephants, moving majestically across their natural terrain, and after that moment. And happily, like elephants, we will never forget.

Elephant4

To learn more about Penn Alumni Travel visit our website at: http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel .

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Penn Alumni Travel, Iberian Trade Routes, 2014

Author: Penn Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, History of Art Department

When our plane touched down at 8am in Barcelona the first thing that I wanted to do was make a beeline to La Boqueria, the recently restored and restocked public market in the heart of the city. Filled with vendors selling raw and prepared foods, glistening fish, octopus, and barnacles fresh from the Mediterranean, and ridiculously indulgent Spanish jamón, La Boqueria is a perfect place to have a quick and hearty gourmet meal, counter-style, so that you can keep on moving and see as much as possible of this amazing Catalan city. We had a lovely plate of foraged wild mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil and topped by a fried egg, a small caña of beer, and some bread before taking in the beauty of the Antoni Gaudí designed Casa Battló.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

We had such a fun-filled day in Barcelona that we barely made it to the magnificent MV Tere Moana for our sail away at 6pm that first night. I was very glad that we did arrive in time because the itinerary, which included Mallorca, Ibiza, Granada, Sevilla, Gibralter, the Algarve, and Lisbon, was fantastic.

Of the five different cruise ships that I have enjoyed sailing on as a faculty host with Penn Alumni Travel, the MV Tere Moana was definitely the most elegant and intimate. With staterooms for less than 100 guests, it was very much like traveling on a private yacht. The ship’s charming and well-trained staff attended to the needs of each traveler individually. By the second night Jonny, the bartender knew my preference for a little Tio Pepe sherry before dinner and Macallan for afters, and by the third he was beginning to make suggestions of custom cocktails that I might like to try. And with drinks being all-inclusive, why not?

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Well, the very busy itinerary on this trip was a good reason not to indulge too much. Each day was filled with a morning excursion, lunch back on the ship, and then another afternoon excursion followed by just an hour or two of downtime before a lovely dinner. The tour directors from Gohagen kept everything running smoothly and the local guides at each destination made sure that all our questions were answered, from which medieval people had occupied that fortification overlooking the Atlantic in the Algarve region of Portugal, to where to buy the best souvenirs in lovely Mallorca.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

And Mallorca, truly the pearl of the Mediterranean, was the highlight of this trip for me. This was the first time that I had visited this delightful, continental-flavored Balearic island filled with gorgeous nineteenth century architecture and an endless harbor jam-packed with enormous yachts. I could have spent the whole week in Mallorca sitting in cafés, drinking coffee and eating lovely pastries.

Almost as satisfying as Mallorca were the stunning cliffs of Gibralter, alive with wild monkeys and riddled with natural caves and military tunnels. I was surprised by how happy the monkeys made me, they were just so cute and funny and absolutely everywhere — climbing on the parade of minivan taxis that snake up and down the side of “The Rock” ferrying tourists to the various attractions that are only reachable via closed roads. As a part of Great Britain with a special economic status, Gibralter was the spot to get a plate of fish and chips and also the best deals on duty free, which seemed to be the main attraction down at sea level.

“The Rock”

“The Rock”

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

Visit Penn Alumni Travel at http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel

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Penn Alumni Travel Galapagos FAQs

Author: Alyssa D’Alconzo, Ed.D. GED’04, GRD’11

It’s been two months since Penn Alumni Travel returned from the Galapagos Islands, but few days go by without someone asking a question about our magical trip. Below are my answers to our Galapagos FAQs. Do you have questions or want to join us for Machu Picchu to the Galapagos in December 2015? Click Here or e-mail PATravel@pobox.upenn.edu!

  1. Where are the Galapagos Islands?

For many people on our trip, traveling to the Galapagos was a bucket list item and, for all of us, it was a trip of a lifetime. But other people I’ve spoken with aren’t quite sure where the Galapagos Islands are located.

This archipelago of volcanic islands is located in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Part of the country of Ecuador, the islands are distributed on either side of the equator.  To reach them, we flew from the United States to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.

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Next, we took a small plane to the Galapagos (Baltra Island, to be specific).

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Once on Baltra, we received a warm welcome from our naturalist guides and boarded zodiacs to the National Geographic Endeavour.

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  1. How were the ship accommodations?

The National Geographic Endeavour is an expedition ship and while that means it lacks some of the traditional luxury items associated with a traditional cruise ship (multiple restaurants, televisions in cabins, room service, etc.), it certainly doesn’t mean it’s lacking in safety or comfort. The small, stabilized ship, holding only 96 guests in 56 outside cabins, is fully air conditioned with a small pool, fitness center, cozy library, and lounge with a full-service bar. It’s kept immaculately clean and there’s even a spa — if you can find time to take advantage of it! (See FAQ #3)

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To explore the Galapagos, being on an expedition ship is a great advantage. It carries snorkeling gear, kayaks, underwater cameras, a fleet of zodiacs, and a glass-bottom boat.

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With so many toys and so much to see, you’re not likely to miss the Lido! Besides, you’ll never find a traditional cruise ship with an “Open Bridge” policy like the one they have on the Endeavour.

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An open bridge means the captain and officers welcome guests any time of day or night and are happy to show you how the equipment works and answer questions about sailing and navigation.

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It’s truly fascinating to experience and I loved being in the bridge when we crossed the equator for the second time.

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  1. How physically active was the trip?

Visiting the Galapagos on an expedition ship does require physical mobility, as you’re accessing each island via zodiac and the terrain on each island is different. That said, there were plenty of options for people of all physical ability levels. For example, while there was hiking each day, there was always an option for shorter walks or longer hikes. If you didn’t want to snorkel, you could ride the glass bottom boat. Not up for kayaking? Go on a zodiac ride!

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Your activity level over the course of the week will depend on your ability and interests, but you will not be without lots of options! For example, one of my favorite days was when I completed what I called the “Galapagos Triathlon” – kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking all in the same afternoon! Yet while I was rushing on and off the ship with all kinds of gear, other passengers were enjoying a relaxing afternoon in a lounge chair on the deck or participating in only one or two of the activities.IMG_8428

  1. Could you touch the animals?

The absence of predatory mammals in the Galapagos means that you are nearly always within arm’s reach of endemic species unlike those you’ve probably ever seen before. Sea lions, blue and red footed boobies, finches, tortoises, marine and land iguanas, flightless cormorants, sea turtles, sharks, and many others fill the days and camera memory cards, but physically touching them is against Galapagos National Park rules. The guides ensure that all passengers follow these rules, so that the islands remain preserved for future visitors.

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  1. How were your guides?

Our guides were phenomenal. We had a group of naturalist guides who seemed to know everything about the flora and fauna of the islands and were incredible leaders on our hikes, zodiac rides, and snorkeling and kayaking adventures.

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The work of the naturalist guides was complemented by undersea specialists who shared fascinating video of what was happening beneath the surface of the water. Add in our Faculty Host, Michael Weisberg, who gave engaging lectures about Darwin, evolution, adaptation and speciation, and it was an incredible learning experience!

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  1. How many Penn alumni were on the tour?

There were 14 alumni on this tour departure, and we had a great time experiencing and learning about the Galapagos together! We were all proud to see the Penn flag flying high above the National Geographic Endeavour all week

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and even enjoyed some exclusive chances to catch up and get to know one another, apart from the larger group.

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  1. What kind of camera did you use?

I probably get this question more than any other! I brought a DSLR, a point and shoot, and my iPhone. They all took great pictures, but that’s probably because every Endeavour trip has a Photo Specialist on-board and many of the guides are photo-certified, as well. They’re all very accessible and always looking out for passengers to ensure they get the best possible photos. On multiple occasions guides would make recommendations for my camera settings or photo angles. Their advice proved to be invaluable and I’ve even noticed I take better pictures with my new knowledge (get eye level with the subject!) now that I’m home.

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  1. Would you go back to the Galapagos?

Without a doubt! It truly was a magical trip. In fact, Penn Alumni Travel will be going to the Galapagos again in December 2015. I also can’t say enough good things about our wonderful faculty host, Michael Weisberg, and our tour operator, Lindblad Expeditions. I eagerly welcome the opportunity to travel with both of them again and we’re making plans for 2016 now. Stay tuned for our full 2016 schedule to see when Michael Weisberg will be hosting and where we’ll be sailing with Lindblad. I hope to see you on our next departure!

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Penn Alumni Travel: Flavors of Tuscany

Author: Professor Michael Gamer, Department of English

By its gastronomic and vinophilic nature, our foray into Tuscany with Penn Alumni Travel transcended the usual stuff of tourism. Part of the reason was the location of our base: the Podere Ciona vineyards in the heart of the Chianti region, owned and operated by Franca Gatteschi. Nestled in the hills, the winery really was a rural idyll. The dawns were misty and the evenings (on clear nights) were full of stars. The mid-October weather cooperated and the views each morning were serene:

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Then there was the size of our group: nine of us joined by six alumni from Wake Forest University. Whenever I teach a seminar here at Penn I find 14-15 to be the perfect size: it maximizes the give-and-take of discussion without placing too much onus on any one person. The same went for our Tuscan group; by the end of the trip we all really had gotten to know one another.

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Here you see us on our second-to-last day, in Brolio with the Castello Brolio in the background. Given how much by then we’d done — and consumed — we look pretty good on the whole. There had been the three hill towns of the Chianti Classico region (Radda, Gaiole, Castellina), cheese tastings and Sunday dinners in the Arezzo area, a cooking class in San Martino followed by Monte Sant’ Edigio, the monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi; there had been Cortona and Siena. That night would be the cooking class with the four Tuscan Mammas, and the next day there would be Florence. With the exception of Florence, I had never visited any of these places, and they were wonderful; and, given the difference between Florence in high season and in October, even that city seemed entirely new to me.

What made this trip so memorable for me, though, was our guide, Marco Messina. That the group adored him would be an understatement. Like any great teacher, he brought knowledge, kindness, patience, and humor to the project of showing us Tuscany. But he also did more than that; on the way, we met his family and friends. No matter the town or winery, museum or restaurant, Marco would find a way to lead us backstage:

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From master olive oil, cheese-, and bread-makers to our coach-driver, Fabio, the meetings were informative, memorable, fun, and, above all, genuine. My own favorite memory is the evening we spent at Castiglion Fiorentino — where, after a terrific meal we found ourselves being let into a closed Civic Museum to see Etruscan ruins. Then, as the sun was setting, we were treated to a 45-minute performance of flag-tossing as the sun was setting. Those of us who had been on cheerleading and pep squads finally had the answer to the question of flag- and letter-twirling’s origins — in this medieval mix of martial art and dance.

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I’m hoping everyone else enjoyed this trip as much as I did. Hope as well to see you next year on the Machu Picchu and Galapagos trip!

[Professor Gamer will be hosting the 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip, Machu Picchu to the Galapagos. Click here for more details or click here to view all our 2015 tours.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: Castles and Cathedrals of France

Author: Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Director of the Arthur Ross Gallery

[This post was written during a Penn Alumni Travel trip exploring the Provincial French Countryside. To view our 2015 schedule of tours, click here.]

October 16, 2014

Today we are touring the Renaissance castle of Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Henri II gave his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, this lovely castle that spans the Cher River.  It reflects perfectly the Renaissance style with beautiful paintings, tapestries, furniture, painted ceilings, and floor tiles executed by Italian and French Renaissance artists and workmen.

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We began our journey last Thursday in Toulouse, one of the great pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages with two exceptional examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the basilica of St. Sernin and the cathedral of St. Etienne.  Today Toulouse is a center for commerce and college students – Airbus builds their planes here, and the cafés in the place St. George are full of people enjoying a coffee or an aperitif talking to one another. Face to face. The square buzzes with voices. No cell phones in the café.

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In Albi we visited their remarkable cathedral, and the Palais de La Berbie that houses the museum of Toulouse-Lautrec, and gardens.  A native son, Lautrec is esteemed today for his lithographs and posters.  He designed these for his friends who were Montmartre’s performers at café-concerts, at the Moulin Rouge, or for Aristide Bruant at Le Mirliton. Scandalous outliers, such as La Goulule and Jane Avril, gained notoriety and fame through Lautrec’s posters.

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Our medieval pilgrimage continued on Tuesday with a visit to Rocamadour. This is a  superb site set in a breathtaking valley with a deep river bed. The houses are built vertically on rock. Above those the church with its famous Chapelle de la Vierge noire (black virgin) is perched, and above the church is a castle.  We climbed 262 steep steps to reach Rocamadour’s churchyard. Eleanor of Aquitaine climbed those same steps on her knees!

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Sarlat is one of the Dordogne’s picturesque towns whose specialties include mushrooms, confit of duck, walnuts, and foie gras made from duck or goose liver.  We enjoyed touring this town, its church, and Bishopry. Some of us paid special homage to the local geese in the “Place des Oies”.

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On our way to Saumur, we paused to admire Chinon, the castle of Charles VII. A 16-year-old Jean d’Arc traveled here after having a dream that she must assist Charles VII. Jean d’Arc later defended her King in battle, before being burned at the stake.

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The Loire Valley is resplendent with castles everywhere. In the 16th century King Francois I settled in the Loire valley surrounded by his court. Francois I brought Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, to France to decorate his castles in the new Renaissance style.

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The Penn Alumni on this trip are fantastic. Smart, enthusiastic, curious, with a good sense of humor, our band of seventeen has a wealth of knowledge in all disciplines. The camaraderie of the group is especially lively in our bus conversations and over leisurely meals that feature great regional specialties and wines. Vive la France!

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A bientot,

Lynn

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Penn Alumni Travel: Lascaux

Author: Laura Foltman

[Staff host Laura Foltman is traveling with Penn alumni, friends, and faculty host Lynn Marsden-Atlass through France. The group returns to the U.S. on October 22nd. For more information about Penn Alumni Travel trips, click here.]

“C’est formidable!” Judith Forman, CW’63, G’66, stated as we exited Lascaux II.  We weren’t sure what to expect with this stop on the Penn Alumni Travel tour of the provincial French countryside.  Our guide, Ms. Elsa Marechal, explained that Lascaux II was a fake cave of prehistoric paintings.  “Ugh!” we all thought.  Here is a tourist trap on what has been an otherwise fantastic trip.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lascaux, the original cave, is located near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France.  One day, in the 1940s, Marcel Ravidat’s dog got lost in the woods.  Marcel found the dog stuck in a hole.  When he rescued the dog he noticed rocks were falling and echoing below the hole.  He took the dog back to the house, grabbed shovels, flashlights, and three friends, returned to the spot, and started to dig.  They soon found themselves in a large shaft that lead to two large caves.  The four friends began exploring, not seeing anything noteworthy until one of the boys slipped and fell on his back.  When his flashlight hit the ceiling he found something extraordinary: about 2,000 figures that were painted 17,300 years ago!  The boys made a pact that this would be their secret hiding place and wouldn’t tell anyone.  Remember, these are teenage boys.  How long do you think the secret lasted?  Three days!

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The cave complex was open to the public in 1948 and averaged 1,200 visitors per day: extraordinary numbers for the time.  All the visitors changed the climate in the cave.  Carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and other contaminants were visibly changing the paintings and lichen began growing on the walls.  Thus Lascaux II, a replica of the great hall where the majority of the paintings are located, was built in 1983 so that visitors can view the caves without damaging the original paintings.  The tour isn’t just a replica, it is an EXACT replica of the current cave as they update it every 3 years to reflect the state of the real cave.

Penn Alumni had a terrific tour guide named Dave Cohen who called Neanderthals a modern equivalent of Rugby players!  Lifelong learning continued for our Penn alumni as they dominated the tour by asking thought-provoking questions such as:

“Why, out of the 2000 images, is there only one image of a human?”

“Are any of the depicted animals domesticated?”

“What is the chemical make-up of the paints to make them last so long (the drawings can not be carbon dated)?”

“How were Neanderthals able to understand motion and perspective?”

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Lascaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the alumni on this trip now understand why.  If you want to find out more information, including the state of the current cave and some of the famous depictions of the images, go to http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en – /en/02_00.xml

The  group poses for a pictures in Albi.

The group poses for a picture in Albi.

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