Monday, May 28, 2007

USVI: The Way Things Are

I’m on an airplane as I write this, returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands — my seventh visit in a little more than a decade though I hadn’t been back in four years. I had forgotten how blue the water is there — shading from turquoise to ultramarine — and so brilliantly colored that the reflection tints the white undersides of laughing gulls as they fly above the sea.

I had also forgotten the rapacity of the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Next time, I’ll bring the cool, menthol splash I bought in Curacao, I promise myself. That helps.

On both St. Thomas and St. John, building continues with few constraints. The steep slopes of the volcanic mountains are dotted with more and larger mansions. On a previous trip, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey had told me that silt from building runs down the mountains into the sea, helping to kill the coral that sustains and protects the beautiful fish.

Easy money today trumps what will be regretted tomorrow. A familiar story.

But – the old synagogue is still there in Charlotte Amalie, with sand on the floor beneath a Baccarat crystal chandelier that has survived many a hurricane. I took off my shoes when I entered and left my footprints on the sand.

The synagogue, built in 1833, is the oldest under the U.S. flag; the sand on the floor was put there by the Sephardic congregation in homage to their ancestors who used it to muffle the sounds of their secret services after they were forced by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions to publicly convert from Judaism to Catholicism.

And the battered fraco truck with the handpainted sign was still there, parked by Emancipation Square. I bought myself a passion fruit sno-cone with milk — which is what Virgin Islanders call the generous topping of sweetened, condensed milk that makes these sno-cones something to be remembered.

Even the shops of Charlotte Amalie mostly selling jewelry, diamonds, perfume and liquor seemed charming to me, housed as they are in old, Danish warehouses with thick stone, brick and coral walls and heavy, wooden shutters and doors. With only one cruise ship in port, the shops and narrow streets weren’t too crowded.

One day on this brief visit, I went to sea aboard a sailboat owned by the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas. We skirted the white beaches and secluded coves of St. John before pulling in at Waterlemon Cay for an hour of snorkeling. The turtles weren’t around on that particular day, but we saw a healthy barracuda, many starfish, sting rays, a queen conch and the remarkable parrot fish who create the white sand beaches when they chew up coral and excrete it — a process that takes many, many years.

Equally remarkable were the millions of silver and blue fish that the Virgin Islanders call “fry” — each of them an inch or two long — swimming in gigantic schools and turning in unison in response to any disturbance. To my eyes they were indistinguishable from each other, but each is a spark of life. In one hour, I probably saw almost as many of these tiny fish as there are people on this planet.

My visit has been too short. I like things the way they were, and even on the whole, the way they are. I hope to return before too many things change.


If you'd like to see more of my photos of the U.S. Virgin Islands, go to

Friday, May 18, 2007

Brooklyn to Broadway

Last night, I saw "Hairspray" — a good-natured, high-energy, cartoon version of the 1960's, now in its fourth year on Broadway. Shannon Durig, who presently plays tubby Tracy Turnblad, the Baltimore teen who longs to dance on the TV show she admires, comes to Broadway from Overland Park, Kansas, and is as sunny and genial off-stage as she is on. Naturi Naughton, who plays a young, black teenager who also would like to dance on the TV show and is excluded because of her race, is a 22-year-old from East Orange, N.J. Judine Somerville, one of two cast members who has been singing and dancing in "Hairspray" since the beginning of its Broadway run, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of Brooklyn's troubled neighborhoods in the 1960's and now getting gentrified.

Most actors would be over the moon to be in a Broadway show, much less a long-running one that guarantees them steady work and a decent paycheck. New York is a place where anything can happen, and sometimes does. On Broadway at twenty-two? Why not?

That's what keeps people coming here — and coming and coming — New York, the place where dreams even bigger than dancing on a TV show sometimes come true...


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fresh Air

During my recent trip to Georgia, I spent a treasured hour sitting on the porch of a cabin in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was surrounded by the tree canopy, listening to the morning chorus of birds, breathing the fresh air. Even in that brief time, I could feel the pressures of city life begin to ebb.

This week, two Travel Arts Syndicate contributors, Kurt Repanshek and Sophia Dembling, write about where, how and why to spend time outdoors this summer. Kurt, who is an expert on U.S. national parks, writes about how to visit them while avoiding summer crowds.

"The national park system offers a gorgeous lake shore with a chain of islands to explore," he says, "a secluded corner of North Carolina steeped in Appalachian lore, an overlooked gem that anchors Nevada’s border with Utah, a geologic wonder where you can escape southern Utah’s convection-oven conditions and even some oceanfront real estate to pitch your tent on."

Sophia, in her monthly column, "Wandering Mind," has this to say:

I feel sorry for people who treat the great outdoors as a drive-through experience. I’ve been stuck in traffic jams in Yellowstone park and while I’m sure some of those people eventually parked to hike, judging by the emptiness of the trails my friend and I explored, most people were evidently driving from site to site to ogle the natural wonders and then flee back to their cars.

Such a crime.

Why not park and hike just a little bit? It takes a lot of work to get to genuine wilderness and certainly a stop with the mobs at Old Faithful is de rigeur, but you’re nuts not to spend some time out on your own two hiking boots where you can hear the silence, see tiny wildflowers and rush-lined ponds, birds and tortoises and vistas unobstructed by camping trailers. If hiking sounds hard, think of it as walking. All you need are two legs, good shoes and a bottle of water. Most parks have short, hard-to-get-lost-on trails that offer an inspiring taste of the experience.

Sophia's column appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. Kurt's national parks story may run in a paper near you.


Thursday, May 10, 2007


This is to congratulate Travel Arts Syndicate contributor Betsa Marsh who just won two first-place writing awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Central States Chapter.

Her “Whale of a Cruise,” about whale-watching in Baja California, published Nov. 19 in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was awarded first place for Best Marine Travel Article in a newspaper, magazine or Web site.

She also won first place for Best Article on Past Three SATW Meeting Sites (New Orleans, Milwaukee and Dallas) for “Texas Town Rallies to Turn Back Clock,” about Grapevine, published Aug. 13 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Both of those articles were released by the Travel Arts Syndicate. I'm very pleased to have been able to help bring Betsa's fine work to the attention of a larger audience.


The Cowboy Church

I've just returned from a few days in northern Georgia. While driving down the highway in Hiawassee (mostly mini-malls and gas stations), I saw a sign that said "Cowboy Church" and wondered what that was. So I stopped to find out.

Fronting the highway are a pawn shop and music store run by Pete and Dorothy Underwood in what used to be their Gulf filling station. A few steps lead to what used to be the garage — now the home of the Cowboy Church. At one end is a stage with the side of a log house on the back wall and a porch. Parked next to the stage is a black 1949 Ford. ("Pete took the motor out three or four years ago and has been working on it," Dorothy commented.)

Another of Pete's projects — a buggy — is in the back of the room, which is furnished with a motley collection of chairs, an upright piano, some rug remnants and an interesting assortment of objects (crosses, cowboy boots, a washtub fashioned into a bass, rifles, guitars, gas lanterns, stuffed birds and more). Two prints of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper are hanging on the wall along with a poster listing the Ten Commandments, several pictures of Jesus and a rendering of Lower Manhattan (where I happen to live), with the Twin Towers still in place and the words "United We Stand."

Dorothy told me there would be gospel singing at the church that night and invited me to return. I did. It was great. MC'd by Bro. Alan Flowers who preaches at the church on Sundays, I heard some fine singing, particularly from an 11-year-old girl named Emily Carey. Remember that name. I think you'll be hearing more about her in coming years.

If I lived closer to the Cowboy Church, I'd go there often. And should you be passing through Hiawassee, Georgia, on a Saturday night (or on the first two Friday nights in the month) when they're singing and playing gospel and bluegrass, I recommend that you check it out.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Street Food

Yesterday on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I saw my first Mister Softee truck of the season and stopped to buy a small vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. The return of Mister Softee is like the return of the robin — a sign of spring. Through the summer and into the warm days of fall, the jingle of the ice cream trucks is the evensong of many New York neighborhoods.

With cone in hand, I walked up Broadway, remembering other street food that I have loved. When I was growing up in Philadelphia, there were chestnut vendors. I would come out of the subway near City Hall on a cold, winter's day, greeted by the smell of chestnuts roasting over hot coals. Two bags, one in each pocket, would keep my hands warm and sustain the long walk to the art museum, which was my usual destination.

On a recent trip to Portugal, I encountered chestnut vendors in Alentejo province, and couldn't pass them by. They sold their chestnuts in little paper cones — not piping hot like the ones of my youth, but still plump and meaty. In Evora, I photographed a chestnut vendor's cart on the main square.

Street food can be like Proust's petite madeleine — embodying a time and place and bringing back a flood of memories. As a travel writer, I always notice it, and when I dare, partake.