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    Geoffrey Gordon

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    Our experience in Lima Peru

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Tue, Jul 02, 2019 @ 11:55 AM

    Lima Peru

    On our first trip to South America we visited both the stark and beautiful Andes, as well as a few days in a Peru’s capital, Lima.

    As American tourists, we stuck to the safest and cleanest sections in the city, and stayed in the section known as Barranco.   Barranco and Miraflores are two of the three or four districts along the coast known to be safe and clean, and there was plenty to do there for several days.

    Lima Peru Biking - Gordon Atlantic Travel

    One of our first activities was a bicycle tour of coastal parks and sites. What jumped out for all of us was the dedication to bike lanes through parks and along streets.   In Boston, riding a bike can be a contact sport.  In Lima, the car traffic and bike traffic seemed to integrate safely and efficiently.   It was a great way to see a large section of coastal Lima with its beautiful parks and boulevards.

     

    Lima comes right out of the Pacific Ocean, and the beaches along the coast are a mix of sandy and rocky with several sections producing good surf.   

    Surfing in Lima Peru - Gordon Atlantic Travel

    We joined Pucana Surf one morning, in spite of their website that says they speak no English. They didn’t speak much English but enough to outfit us with a good selection of wetsuits, then get us into the water, and safely up on our boards on 1 meter, but plentiful waves.  Check out the skyline on the coastline in this picture; we're surfing right off the City of Lima!

    The food in Lima was spectacular, and lunch was particularly inexpensive.   I ordered ceviche for lunch each day when we were in Lima. Ceviche is a fish dish that uses lime juice and hot peppers to cook the meat.  Light garnishes of lettuce, corn, and potato slices made for beautiful presentations as well.  This is a specialty of Lima which our guide at Machu Picchu strongly suggested we try, and we did, and we all enjoyed it..  Ceviche in Lima Peru - Gordon Atlantic Travel

     

    As potatoes are indigenous to Peru, there are some 200 versions of potatoes growing today. French fries, Papas Fritas in Spanish, can be served with many dishes. These are not McDonald’s string french fries; they are more like steak fries; you might get a half a dozen papas fritas out of one potato.  Ketchup is rarely served.


    The most popular local drink is the Pisco sour. Pisco's origin came from Spanish restriction of wine cultivation and production in Peru. The Spanish overlords wanted locals to buy Spanish
    wine. But Peruvians created their own liqueur from grapes, some from Madera or Italian grapes, the liqueur now known as Pisco.  Mixed with lime juice, egg whites and plenty of ice, it is a delicious, tart, and cold drink. It was perfect for watching the sun set over the Pacific. 

    The people we met in Peru in general, and in Lima in particular, always seemed pleasant and eager to help us enjoy our stay.  Even language differences were never met with contempt, but rather, with mutual efforts to understand.  

    One inescapable observation was the homogeneity of the local people.  Some 40% of Peruvians are indigenous people, with similar size (shorter than most Americans), complexion and facial features.  In the United States we are so used to a broad variety of people, seeing so many people with such similar features was noteworthy and memorable. 

    Lighthouse Lima Peru - Gordon Atlantic Travel

    As is the case with many urban centers around the developing world, Lima has sections that are reflective of first world luxury and development, as well as third world poverty, inequality, pollution, and crime.   Of Lima’s 45 districts, 3 or 4 are clean and safe, while the other roughly 40 districts are characterized by Third World conditions including lack of clean water, lead-laden air pollution from old cars, and limited economic opportunity.   Crime there however, is evidently limited to petty theft; we heard that violent crime is uncommon.  Civil strife from two decades ago was evident nowhere.

    For me personally, this trip was my first to a Spanish speaking country, so I was nervous with the language uncertainty.  Before our trip I downloaded a tourist’s app to get a basic grasp for directions, food, transactions and greetings: just enough to get by.   While Peruvian hospitality - particularly in tourist heavy locations - might have been more than we can expect from other destinations, having eased into enough Spanish to get around has given us the confidence to explore more of South America - and Spain - in our future. 

    This was a great trip, and Lima is a beautiful place to explore. 
     

    Tags: travel, biking, Gordon Atlantic Insurance, Peru, Lima Peru, surfing

    Peru and Machu Picchu

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Thu, Jun 27, 2019 @ 12:45 PM

    When our niece and nephew invited us to join them in Peru. We thought, Peru? Hmmm. Sure. Isn’t Machu Picchu down there?   Machu Picchu was indeed our destination for the first half of our trip, and the subject of this blog post!

    Back before the Incas 

    Hike through Alpen grass in Peru

    Most of us remember from elementary school social studies, Pizarro’s escapades in the 16th century high into the Andes, seeking the same treasure that Cortez had taken from the Aztecs.  Images of steep mountain terraces and conquistadors color my memories.  I had assumed the Incas had been there for centuries.  

    Not quite. The Inca civilization was actually only one hundred years old when Pizarro arrived, but they didn’t appear out of nowhere.  The Incas were a small tribe centered in the valley of Cusco which began a rapid expansion phase in about 1438.   One element establishing their reign was the construction of over 42,000 miles of footpaths; runners could transmit information from one end of the empire to another in a matter of days.  Incan kings extracted taxes not in the western tradition of demanding money or crops, but rather requiring 3 months of labor each year; thus were these roads and terraces built.  Today Incas remain; in the mountains many locals still speak Quechua, the native language of the Incas. 

    Cusco

    We landed in Lima, Peru’s capital, and immediately jumped on a flight to Cusco, the traditional Incan capital, an hour or two south, and 11,000 feet higher (3,400 m).  With a population close to a half million people, it’s one of the highest major urban centers in the world.  If you’re going to Machu Picchu, you’ll come through Cusco.   But we didn't stay long.  The same afternoon, we headed to Urubamba, a smaller town close to Machu Picchu, at an elevation of around 8,000’ (2500m).  

    Urubamba

    Cusco Pentecost festival church

    Urubamba is settled into a tight valley surrounded by the steep, massive peaks of the Andes. The Urubamba River meanders through town, and a railroad line follows the river bed, ferrying tourists from Cusco through Urumbamba and on to Aguas Calientes, a small town at the base of Machu Picchu. 

    Wandering around the markets and small back streets of Urumbamba, we came across a Pentecostal fest in the town square, with band and dancing competitions and a genuine hometown feel. We also spent a morning riding horses along the river, exploring pre-Incan burial caves and marveling at the 12 month growing season.  It would have been easy to have spent more time taking in Urumbamba, but we only had only a week in Peru, and Machu Picchu beckoned.

    Climbing into Machu Picchu

    There are several ways into Machu Picchu:  You can hike for four or five days with local outfitters; you can day hike roughly ten miles and about a thousand meters (3,000') of elevation gain; or you can take the train from Cusco (or from Urubamba), then a bus right up switchback roads to Machu Picchu.  We chose the day hike.  Bridge over Urumbamba

    The day hike into Machu Picchu began when the tourist train (that for many began in Cusco 3 or 4 hours earlier) stops on the Urubamba River at a small footbridge.  The span wasn’t like in the movies over a great yawning chasm, but the bridge construction was similar: wood boards over a rope suspension bridge above fast water.  Once across the river, we hiked as we would in New Hampshire or Vermont, slow and steady rise carrying only day packs with a lunch provided by our outfitter.  Llama Paths was our outfitter, based in Cusco, and we all liked them.  They were professional and courteous for our orientation in Cusco;  Juan Joe (JJ), our guide, kept us moving, and encouraged water and snack breaks periodically.  He kept us engaged with his knowledge of Incan and Peruvian culture and history.  He occasionally spoke Quechua with the porters who'd pass us from time to time.

    Since there were eight of us spanning in age five decades (30’s to 70’s), we traveled at an easy but steady pace.  An early highlight was emerging from the woods into alpine pasture and seeing the Urubamba River below. It gave us gave us a sense of accomplishment after our climb, and the open views to higher alpine landscapes were breathtaking.   Soon we could see Chachabamba, a great terraced site, an emerald green amphitheater across a drainage from us, our next destination.  While it appeared close, the trail kept elevation around the drainage, so it took longer to reach Chachabamba than we expected.  The quality of engineering and stone workmanship was evident throughout the terraces, still structurally sound after 500 years.

    Llama sitting on stonework in Peru

     

    Just past Chachabamba, we broke for lunch, which Llama Path had prepared for us: chicken in quinoa salad, an avocado that was perfectly ripe, and apple and energy bar. It was all healthy and delicious.

    With lighter packs, rested bones and a well-worn trail without much more elevation gain, we soon entered the “Sun Gate”, a saddle on a ridge where the sun rises on summer solstice (December 22) from the perspective of the main altar rock at Machu Picchu.  So the magnificence and beauty of Machu Picchu was below us from the Sun Gate, replete with its own stone terraces and pillar work.  We hung out there for a little while to take pictures (see below) and just take it all in. The walk down to Machu Picchu was quick, and with it in our sights the whole time, its vastness and splendor became more evident with every step.  Plus, being mid-to-late afternoon, all the tourists were gone.  While there were a few other people still exploring the site, we more or less had the place to ourselves.  

    Relaxing in Machu Picchu, Peru

    There is a new town below Machu Picchu named Agua Calientes, straddling the banks of a river feeding the Urubamba.  We headed there for dinner and a hotel bed. The town was built to accommodate tourists to Machu Picchu, so is not old, though it was built to look like an old quaint mountain town.  There is a great market where local people sell their sweaters, paintings, zamponis (a local wind instrument made of 13+ bamboo tubes) and other wares. Restaurants and gift shops line the streets, and Peruvian and Incan memorabilia are for sale in Agua Calientes.

    Wayna Picchu

    We came back up to Machu Picchu on the bus, early, before 7AM, when bus transfers for the public begin.  Because we had hiked in and secured a permit for the day’s climb, the early arrival, before the crowds was a blessing. This is one of the benefits of seeing a place like Machu Pichu with a good outfitter: they have the inside track to help guests see and experience the beauty without the inevitable crowds.  That morning JJ gave us the historical tour of the main sites in Machu Picchu early, and we learned about the engineering (drainage was everything), the history of discovery in the late 19th century, and more about building and farming.  

    Machu Picchu - Wayna Picchu Looms

    After the tour, we left JJ and ascended Wayna Picchu on our own.   Wayna Picchu is the conical-haystack looking mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu, easily ascended from the Machu Picchu Park, but separately controlled - you need a pass.  200 Passes are available for a 7AM ascent, and another at 10AM.  The trail is steep and narrow, so a climber limit is necessary.  The hike was not technical, but steep pretty much the whole way.  Cables and rails helped provide stability.  I strongly recommended this climb for anyone who can climb a NH 4000 footer.  The views back down upon Machu are spectacular and the sense of accomplishment is hard to dismiss.

    View from the top of Wayna Picchu back to Machu Picchu

    Once down from this peak, we took the tourist train back to Cusco for a small town stay, enjoying the pentecostal festival, and taking in some of the local culture.  The day hike across the Sun Gate, and the hike up onto Wayna Pichu mad e a good trip to a beautiful place even better.

    A final comment on language: Even with a limited knowledge of Spanish that i picked up on the flight, we were able easily to eat, get around, buy sweaters and other memorabilia, and enjoy the scenes.  The people were universally polite, friendly and accommodating.   While many vendors and wait staff speak a little English, communicating with those who don't is not impossible.  A smile and a 'we may be surprised but who cares' attitude is often enough to make it all worthwhile. 

    Following Cusco, we headed to Lima for a few days in Peru’s capital.  For that wholly different experience,, check out my next travel blog.  This unexpected trip became a fun adventure.

     

    Tags: Gordon Atlantic Insurance, Machu Picchu, Travel Insurance, Peru, Wyana Picchu

    Jerusalem and Israel

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Sun, Apr 14, 2019 @ 07:16 PM

    Jerusalem is a city of opposites and extremes, of curiosity and revelation, with breadth and depth that is unequalled in the world.  It is the birthplace of monotheism. The thoughts that follow include new understanding and personal insight from exposure to new facts, places and ideas.   This exposure turned a good vacation into a great life experience.

    The parallelisms evident through the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam deserve a brief overview for perspective, offering insight into these religions that even secularists might appreciate.

    Adam to Abraham to Jesus to Mohammed

    Jerusalem is a destination for religious reasons for many people, so it's logical to begin here.   All three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that Adam was the first man, and Eve his wife.  They ate forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, man’s first sin, and were set off out of the Garden of Eden into the world by God.  Later, Abraham, a righteous man and father of all three religions, was tested by God (was Abraham testing God?), when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his fealty to God.  Abraham brought Isaac to the altar on Mount Moriah, the height of the land in Jerusalem, today held within the Temple Mount, before God stopped him, presenting instead a ram, symbolizing God’s wish never to condone humans sacrificing humans.  We are all created in God’s image. Life is precious: Thou Shalt not Kill.

    Consider this backdrop as we visited the Western Wall my second time.  (The first visit has its own story). I paused nearby to read the inscription of the ‘Binding of Isaac’., where the father prepares to kill his first son.  After donning a yarmulke I approached the wall, and was overcome by emotion, reminded from my Christian heritage that God sacrificed to mankind his only son, that we may be forgiven our sins.  If in the early Jewish religion sacrificing a sheep was better than a dove, a cow better than a sheep; what does sacrificing your only Son for the benefit of mankind convey? This is a powerful place for people of faith, and it struck me unexpectedly deeply.

    Western Wall

    Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

    Shalom is a Jewish greeting, Salaam Arabic, both words meaning Peace.  In the Arab quarter, ‘Salaam’ or a variation (as-salaam 'alaykum, or ahlan wa sahlan) is a greeting that works… usually.  When challenged by a young shopkeeper with an edge, ‘What is Salaam?’, Peace, I replied. ‘What is Peace? Do we have peace?’, I was reminded of the plight of Palestinain cab drivers, indigenous Isreali Arabs, and other Muslims we met.  I replied, ‘God willing, some day there will be Peace’, which defused the exchange, but reminded us of the undercurrents of a land where many religions converge, and convergence is not always peaceful.

    The Western Wall, where only 50% shows above ground.  There are another 17 courses below ground.

    Breadth and Depth

    The breadth and depth of religions (including cultural manifestations) is everywhere.  Within the Jewish community, for example, the ultra-orthodox play an over-sized role as kingmakers in Israeli politics. While they represent a relatively small minority, they coalition with Likud, extracting goodies: e.g. no busses on Shabat (sabbath), and continuation of a 1948 law allowing Yeshiva (students of the Torah) to study - at taxpayer expense - in some cases indefinitely.    We experienced schisms evident on election day - Tuesday - as Bibi Netanyahu continued on as Prime Minister for his sixth term.  Secularists are unhappy with the absence of busses on Saturdays and with their paychecks supporting lifetime students. Between these bookends on simple religious / political spectra are many Jews, from literally all around the world, on multiple other spectra.

    Below are pictures of a Bedouin village and an Israeli Settlement, both in the West Bank.Bedouin villageSettlement

     

    Christianity’s breadth is on display at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This is the site of Golgotha Hill where Christ was crucified, as well as the site of his burial chamber.  (As an aside, a floor below Golgotha, evident through glass is the same rock with red streaks: where - according to legend - Jesus’ blood permeated the rock, reaching Adam’s skull, symbolizing Christ’s blood freeing Adam from original sin).  Heady stuff.Church of Holy Sepulcher

    The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is too holy for one denomination, so it is managed by six Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox.  The effectiveness of this management by committee is evident in a ladder set upon a balcony above the main entrance, and unmoved since 1757, a testament to the Status Quo rule: that no order may change or rearrange anything without approval of the other five represented denominations.  

    Note the ladder below the middle window at Church of the Holy Sepulcher


    An alternative ‘Golgotha’ - the Place of the Skull - with its own burial chamber nearby, ‘discovered’ by Charles Gordon (of Sudanese fame) outside the walls in the late 19th century, appeals today to Evangelical Protestants.

     

    Islamic breadth in Israel was not as evident with our limited exposure, but one metric is civic engagement: citizenship for resident Arabs with voting rights and economic opportunity are a long way from Palestinians on the West Bank (aka - the occupied territories).  Here prominent signs at crossroads entering ‘Zone A’ warn Israelis that entering may cost them their lives, and where taxes (collected by Israel) are transferred for disbursement to the Palestinian Authority where leadership is less responsive: taxation without representation.  Arab engagement with the political process may vary, but one unifying force is recognition that political leaders don’t care much about them. The disappointment and frustration is evident, and manifestly understandable.

    Roads within the Palestinian Authority allow for travel, but Israelis may not stop or enter.

    Sign in zone A

    The most unifying force in our experience was economic, revealing today’s BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) promoted by a Palestinian from Qatar) for its purely political and provocative ends.

     

     

     

     

    A Land of Extremes

    We met a group of three young Palestinians at the Dead Sea.  It’s a resort. You can float in the Sea, enjoy a mud bath, ride a camel for a few shekels, have a meal or a drink, and hang out by the pool.  These three young men explained that they live in a small village, and left their wives at home with their families, explaining that they didn’t want to expose them to the women in swimsuits, the drinking, overt capitalism (skin care products, ladies?), and other western / modern influence at the resort.  

    Juxtapose this to our day in Jaffa / Tel Aviv, with beautiful young men and women on the beach and a bar every few hundred meters.  The latter may seem normal, but it’d’ve been as extreme to these rural Palestinian men as their sheltering their wives from a resort seems to us.

    Dead Sea camel

     

     

     

    Geography

    Tel Aviv is also the recipient of good healthy rainfall out of the Eastern Med.  The land is lush (think Jaffa oranges) with a European feel. As the land rises 2,500 feet to Jerusalem, most moisture is squeezed out of the clouds, terminating at Jerusalem.  Immediately to the east is the Judean Desert (more about John the Baptist and Jesus before we are done), a land dominated by the Dead Sea and bordered with Jordan River, receiving less than 10 cm water annually.

    The Jordan River baptismal site and the Dead Sea resort were highlights, for different reasons, but both offered simple pleasures, and timely breaks from information overload.  Below are the Jordan River (baptismal site), and checking email while floating in the (30% salinity) Dead Sea.

    Jordan river

    Dead Sea float


    War and Peace

    In 1967, several Arab nations staged a surprise military assault on Israel in what would become known as the Six Days War.  Having secured their borders (as it turned out, for only anther six years, until 1973), Israel began digging.  Many of the ancient sites we visited, Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls), Herodium, and the City of David, had been lost to time until recently. But since Jews had been expelled from Israel since the second rebellion (against Rome) in about 165 CE, there was a sense that showing Judean history can better secure their place today. Excavating and exposing the Western Wall (of the Temple, which Romans destroyed) was one initiative that drew Islamic ire since most Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the very spot where Abraham bound Isaac, where the Temple itself stood, and its Western Wall stands today.

    Today the three religions cohabitate the Old City’s respective quarters mostly peacefully.  But agitators agitate. The entrance to the Temple Mount (Muslim controlled) is at the Western Wall.  Shortly before we ascended, we heard a group of young men boldly singing Zionist songs as they approached this Islamic holy place.  Israeli security or Islamic proctors managed to silence them, but offence and escalation is never further than the next street corner.

     

    War and Death… long ago

    New understanding from archaeological sites is often framed by “First Temple”, ‘Second Temple’, and first and second rebellions; we knew nothing about these on our arrival.  But they frame some core ideas today, and are worth summarizing. The First Temple was built by Soloman in about the 10th century BCE. That’s three thousand years ago.  Early Jews worshiped there, until the Babylonians (led by Nebuchadnezzar) conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.  Babylon expelled the Jews about 500 years later, so they returned to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple.  Another 500 years later, King Herod added magnificence to the building (We climbed the stairs that Jesus climbed to enter the Temple to flip the tables of the money changers.).  In about 66 CE, the first revolt against the Romans occurred, with a predictably forceful result.  AbMasada to Roman siege campout 60 years later (132 CE) the bar Kokba revolt resulted in the most forceful consequence.  Fighters held out in two of our visited sites: Herodium and Masada, two of Herod’s palaces. But the Romans hunted down and killed the last Jew to prevent another insurrection, Jewish slaves could be bought for less cost than a half day’s horse’s ration. The Jews would not repopulate the area for nearly 2000 years.  

    One of the last holdouts was Masada, Herod’s palace located on top of a mountaintop near the Dead Sea (which we visited).  Its cisterns held water and stores were adequate. After an 8-month siege, the Roman army breached the northern gate. That night, 960 soldiers committed mass suicide, preferring to die on their own terms to being slaughtered - or sold into slavery - by Romans.

    The area’s climate has preserved many elements of those days including the siege line and eighth encampments, and its remote location preserved its outline well.  

    Herodium was another Herod palace and burial site we visited, near East Jerusalem, an incredibly restored site since its recent excavation.  



    Another religious parallel

    Moses led the Israelis out of Egypt, but he never led them out of the Jordanian desert (today’s trans-Jordan).  That job was left to Joshua, who led the Israelite's out of the desert, across the Jordan River, to the land of milk and honey: Israel.  ‘Jeshua’ is the Aramaic name for Joshua, and the name of the prophet who led Gentiles out of their wilderness after his baptism in the Jordan: We call him Jesus.

    There are multiple other parallels between the Old Testament (Judaism’s bible) and New Testament (Christian Bible), but standing on the banks of the Jordan River, with the Jordanian desert to the east and Jerusalem to the west, the Joshua - Jeshua connection was palpable.

     

    Chuck and Lynna

    Our hosts were gracious, fun, and beyond interesting.  They are friends from home who had an unexpected free bedroom in their apartment for their month-long trip to Jerusalem.  Chuck is not a religious person, but a serious scholar of history and humanity. Lynna is Jewish, non-practicing, and equally interesting and engaging.  Not only were they gracious hosts and fun to be around, they introduced us to David Zwebner, our outstanding tour guide for our first full day.

    DavidDavid Mt of Olives

    David’s family is six generations in Jerusalem, his great-grandfather arriving in the mid-19th century and his grandchildren living nearby.  David has made his way in life doing other interesting things (with a personal letter from Donald Trump to show for one of his interests), and does tour guides as a personal love.  Monday was a firehose of information, beginning on the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, throughout the Old City with all its richness and variations, concluding at the U.S. Embassy.  He led me respectfully to the Western Wall, discussed the confluence of religion and history with ease, and surprised us with his skill for avoiding crowds, while seeing Jerusalem’s most important sites.  My favorite line from David was his birthday greeting: ‘On this day, God decided the world could not manage without you.’



    Haim

    Chuck and Lynna also arranged for Haim Karel to guide us east, out of Jerusalem:  to Masada, En Gedi and the Dead Sea one day, and Herodium, Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls), the Inn of the Masada viewGood Samaritan, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (resort) on a second day.  A valid metric, happened on two separate times and in two separate locations. While passing other larger groups, the tour-guides stopped to interrupt their own tours to remark, ‘Folks, meet Haim.  Haim was my teacher. He is the best! You guys (meaning the four of us) are so lucky!’ They were right. Haim was as passionate about learning (sporting multiple languages and multiple degrees) as anyone I’ve known; entertaining, energetic, and generous with his tea and his container of dates and nuts.   

    A people person, he convinced an architectural archaeologist student working at Herodium to give us a lecture on the top Herodiumelements of Herod the Great’s impressive palace and burial site, just by befriending him.  Assaf’s best line, ‘A good visit is a done visit, so I have to get back to work.’


    Final thoughts

    Jerusalem is rich and deep, not only on a religious basis, but ethnically and culturally as well.  It sits at one end of the fertile crescent (Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, at the other) and people have been trading and passing through for millennia.  Today Israel is playing a long game, trading increasingly with its closest neighbors Egypt and Jordan, inviting new Jewish citizens from around the world, while still requiring that all youth serve in the military or comparable defensive capacity:  They live in a tough neighborhood where absence of war appears enough to get re-elected. Most people deeply want peace. May it be so.

    We barely scratched the surface, but we scratched a lot and found a wonderful place. May peace prevail.   

    Tags: travel

    How to stay warm in cold weather

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Jan 01, 2018 @ 08:14 AM

    When the cold weather comes in hard, it's safer to stay inside and let it pass. But for those who want to experience the outdoors as it truly is, here are a few tips that can make it beyond tolerable, and quite fulfilling.

    First of all, forget about fashion. We have one goal here: be comfortable as Mother Nature relentlessly tries to steal your heat.

    Take a tip from the wild animals out there: think calorie count. Am I burning more than I'm consuming? When the cold weather first came in, mammals stayed sheltered to preserve their energy. But as soon as temps rose from negative and single digits into double digits, the need for calorie replenishment grew, and deer began browsing, squirrels began hitting the bird feeders again. So don't over-exert, but don't just sit still either. Moderate continual movement is good.

    Fingers and toes are the first to get cold because your body senses heat loss and consolidates to the core: protect the heart and brain. When this happens, move these extremities around, or use commercially available warmers. Our ancestors didn't always have the luxury of a warm house and stocked pantry, but you can afford to burn more calories than you consume. If you are standing in snow, can you stand where the heat drain is less? Clear snow to stand on wood or a dry forest floor.


    Mittens are better than gloves, but light gloves inside capacious mittens are even better. Insulated boots like Sorrels (fat boots that the ski operators wear) are best.
    Wind chill factor is real; this accounts for the fact that wind has additional cooling effect, so cover your skin. This is one reason the gloves and mittens combo is so effective. If you have to expose your bare hands to the cold to get into the food or into a pack, they will get stinging cold quickly. Cover it up.

    It's true that heat loss happens out of the head most of all. Always wear a good hat.

    Winter picnic group

    For the rest of your clothes, think layers. Layers work because they help trap the heat in air space between your body and the cold. Close to the body I like a tight fitting, long sleeve Underarmor workout shirt and long underwear. The next layer should be a tight weave wool or synthetic fabric to hold the warmth close: a good wool shirt, and soft cuddly pajama bottoms for the legs because we'll cover them with windproof baggy ski pants. Another layer on top such as a down jacket or comfortable wool sweater that opens at the neck to regulate heat are good. The final layer should be highly wind resistant. Keep that heat in the house!

    Food can help: if your venture outdoors includes a picnic, soup or hot cider can add heat to your insides, warming those fingers and toes in minutes. https://www.agordon.com/hubfs/Winter%20picnic%20group.jpg

    Alcohol does NOT help. It's true that a slug of booze may make you feel warmer, but what's happening is your capillaries dilate from alcohol, sending more blood to your skin. This makes you feel warmer, but has a tremendous cooling effect on your core temperature. Alcohol risks hypothermia, and if you become impaired, you may not recognize the difference between emerging hypothermia and an alcohol buzz-on. A little schnapps or hot wine is a tasty treat when recreating outside, but beware how far you take this. Alcohol can be deadly in the cold.

    Shivering is the first sign your body gives to lower than optimal core temperature. If you can, get inside, get warm, and drink hot water or soup.

    The animals outside deal with the cold all winter long, and it makes them resilient. Spending a little time in minor discomfort can be invigorating. Spending time outside without discomfort is even better.

     

     

     

    Volunteer hurricane relief work after Hurricane Harvey

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 @ 04:42 PM

    Volunteering to help others for disaster relief is as life fulfilling as anything else we can do.  Here are a few personal thoughts about helping out with hurricane relief efforts in Houston after Harvey.

    How I came to Houston was a combination of an unexpected opening in my schedule and a memorable experience years ago in Louisiana after Katrina.  My wife was away on a trip with her sisters, and everyone knew that there was extensive pain and devastation in Houston.  Timing, opportunity, and need turned a whim into a fulfilling life experience. 

    Volunteering after a catastrophe is easy. While there are travel expenses – the flight, and I like to have a car - the logistics of organizing and mobilizing volunteers is often well handled by local churches. Churches are dialed in to the local needs at a more personal level than larger organizations. The impact may not be as broad, but goes deeper to people often unable to navigate government or large non-profit services, which are more organizationally rigid. 

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    I discovered Parkway Fellowship through an easy online search and arrived on Wednesday afternoon. The place emanated energy, had more racial and ethnic diversity than I expected in Texas, and the staff was well organized.  Churches draw a higher percentage of overall residents in the South than in New England, and this seems to contribute to heterogeneity in programs and membership, as well as skills contribution.  By 8PM I had met the team (also from out of town) that I'd spend most of my time with, and a place to sleep.  

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    Houston Sprawl

    Houston has an urban infrastructure problem.  The city has been one of the country's fastest growing for several years (now third or fourth largest in the country), and while freedom from zoning regulation contributed to that growth, the lack of urban planning is reflected in – among other things - bad rainwater runoff management that exacerbated Harvey's effect, into vast neighborhoods across the socio-economic spectrum. 

    The human element
    This failure contributed to some of the human tragedy we see today in Houston. I met a fellow who lives in a "500-year' flood plain, meaning FEMA believes the chance of a flood is 1 in 500 years. Federal mortgage requirements require insurance on homes in the "100-year" floodplain, but not in the 500-year plain. This guy has spent the last three years making his home his palace.  After a few days of torrential rains, reservoirs were opened to save downtown: but the flow spread into thousands of homes (I heard the number 100,000, but can't confirm) within the 500-year plain. This guy's home stood in five feet of water by the end of the rains.  Neither he nor thousands of others thought flood insurance was needed.  How can you plan for that?

    Harvey is the third 500-year storm in Houston in the past 50 years.   

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    The work
    The work after a major flood involves removing everything that got wet: if there was a foot of water in the house, all flooring, three feet of drywall and insulation have to go... Not to mention dishwashers, AC compressors and other mechanicals, and of course, most of the furniture. For remaining studs and exterior walls an anti-mold agent needs to be applied.  This is labor intensive, dirty, work that needs 

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    to be done before the skilled contractors arrive.  While many people did their own work, others cannot physically do themselves, nor afford to hire someone. This is whom we helped.

    The cleanup by neighborhoods
    Houston's sidewalks are being cleared by specialty, large volume, refuse haulers hired by the counties. The  word on the street is that the county will make three runs down every affected street (in the worst neighborhoods), picking up what's on the sidewalk each time. After each pickup, the remaining refuse pile has to be moved back out onto the sidewalk. Since some refuse covers entire lawns, people may need to hire their own roll-off dumpsters at their own expense if three trips isn't enough.  (A roll-off costs about $2,500 these days)

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    The Future for Houston
    There is talk in the neighborhoods and at city hall about how the infrastructure needs to be better designed to move water. Sitting on the eastern edge of the warm Gulf of Mexico, future storms with this much water aren't expected to take another 500 years to appear again.  This is a clear need: watch how Houston addresses it.  

    A few final thoughts about Texas.  

    I heard from several people, "Texas is more than a state; Texas is a State of Mind."  Texans don't wait; they do.  Everyone I met was incredibly kind, and gracious, and appreciative.  The picture of my clothes is an example.  One day I'm working at the pastor's neighbor's house, cleaning off at a garden hose.  The pastor's wife says, "Let me wash your clothes."  She 

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    doesn't even have a home to go to; she's staying with friends.  And yet she returns these clean clothes to me (they were really dirty) at the end of the day, plus this cool phone charger than someone had donated to the church.  Plus the awesome note, 'Texas Loves Boston'. 

    When the work was done, Texas music plays.  Houston has a lot of work to do, but I'm looking forward to another visit there, next time, to play. 

    Tags: volunteer work, hurricane relief,, disaster relief

    Dumoine Fishing Trip 2016 Andrew G Gordon Ins. Norwell MA

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Tue, Jul 05, 2016 @ 04:53 PM

    dumoine geoff gordon andrew g gordon ins ma

     

    Licensure  

    We got gas in New Hampshire, ending up at ZEC Dumoine at 6:30.  The licensing station closes at 7 and we still had two stations to go, so we were cutting it close.   The 7-day Quebec fishing license is about $70 CDN and is available at Lance’s at the entrance of Swisha, which is open 8-8 almost every day. 

    dumoine fishing gordon insurance

     

    Food

    Right when we got to camp on Tuesday, we went out fishing.  Kurt filleted his 22” catch and we had it after dinner, which was on the stove when we pulled in, about 10. When we woke up on Wednesday, we did not tarry over coffee or breakfast, as we had reserved a say at Benway, a 300 acre lake.  After the morning activities on Wednesday,   Peter turned our camp lunch fixins into a delectable tuna salad on toasted flatbread and cheese.  After a short fishing excursion early on Thursday morning, I came back to camp for a great breakfast of hash and eggs.  For lunch, Peter made grilled cheese and ham with Oscar's smoked mustard.  Dinner was Norwell sourced: I brought Canadian goose breasts and Kurt brought venison rump roast.  Peter added twice baked potatoes over the newly repaired fire ring, added a little pinot grigio and we were good. For dinner on Friday, Kurt was on his venison, which included rump cuts and the back straps, while Peter prepared the brookies.  Jeff and I got the fire ready while Kurt and Peter prepped the Vidalia onions and asparagus for grilling, and a mushroom sauce and mushrooms.  It was outstanding.  Peter brought out some killer carrot cake.  Saturday’s dinner and our final meal was a week-in-review: moose and venison, trout hash, and some brussel sprouts with garlic and onion.

     

    geoff gordon boat marine insurance dumoine 2016

     

    Fishing

    When we arrived on Tuesday, Peter and Jeff had left us a canoe at the road. They were gone, so we just left our stuff and hit the water.  Kurt caught two walleyes.  His second one was closer to 22", so we kept it.

    On Wednesday, we headed out early because we had reserved a day at Benewah, a 300 acre lake with no stocked fish.  I broke the ice with a small speckled trout, and Kurt tagged one soon after. After taking a few more passes along the eastern shore, Kurt and I broke off to explore the little inlet cove.  We caught - didn't boat - some small brookies at another lake above Benewah.  At the bridge crossing the Fil de Grande - a north to south river that drains into the Dumoine - Jeff scored with two pike, the first small, the second respectable, and that seemed to spook the rest.

    It was raining on Thursday, so I started the day with a short fishing excursion here on Cullen, heading to Third Chain when the rain broke off slightly.  We were skunked at Third Chain, and returned to camp with plans for fishing elsewhere later in the afternoon.

    On Friday we headed out early.  The sun was already up over much of the lake, so Peter and I headed to the eastern shore to fish the shaded shore.  We began in shallow water, and I had a hit on my Wabbler and worm.  Further along the same shore, I caught a maybe 12", which we kept by choice for dinner.  Before we were done, we had caught about a dozen brook trout and kept five, releasing the rest.  Jeff and Kurt were slinging tin, and while they didn't have the same success, were also both rewarded with several fish, losing two on a stringer.  On Lake Robinson, we tried several different lures with no success.  I finally tried a north river Rapala, and hooked quickly into a couple small walleyes.  Below the falls onto the slow water, Kurt tried a top water frog imitation, and Peter a gold Phoebe, but nothing produced pike.

    On Saturday, we fished Cullen in the morning for pike.   Jeff and Peter were planning to cast along the left edge, but with the breeze down the lake we decided to paddle a quarter mile up the shore.  Kurt was using a jitterbug from Bill Drummy, a top water splashy twitchy bright thing. He had only a few casts before he caught onto something substantial.  This was by far the broadest and longest fish we caught.  We fished the same cove to the left of the main body of water below the old heron rookery.

    dumoine geoff gordon insurance norwell

     

    Tags: Lake Benwah, fishing, trout, trout fishing, dumoine, fishing blog, good food, Lake Robinson

    Istanbul Reflections

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Oct 16, 2015 @ 12:02 PM

     

     

    Istanbul reflections

    I recently returned from our first trip to Turkey, and came away with great memories, and new appreciation of Turkey and the Turkish people.  We were fortunate to have had a Turkish student as our house guest for three months in 2012: Atahan.  We decided to visit Atahan, who had grown from a "guest son" kid into a young adult friend.  One of the highlights of our trip was the development of our relationship with Atahan. 

    Below are some of my other reflections on our stay.

     

    Hospitality - not just in Atahan's home where we were guests, but Turkish hospitality in general.

    We had dinner with an old acquaintance from when I was studying in Munich in 1976/77. I called him locally, as he had frequently said, “If you are ever in Istanbul, I'm the only Opak in the phone book”.  My intention had been simply to call to say hello and reminisce for a few minutes.  He graciously invited my wife and me and Atahan to dinner.  He offered to pick us up, enduring a brutal traffic getting out of town, with grace and patience.  Not only was it a pleasure to reminisce further about our days in Munich, but this meeting gave me the opportunity to communicate with a Turkish person without Atahan as our interpreter.   We talked about his Haj (pilgimmages to Mecca), his business, and other local topics.  (and dinner was outstanding).

    I remarked to him the hospitality we had seen and experienced seemed particularly special, well beyond the cordial politeness some Americans or some Europeans show struggling visitors. He mentioned that he traveled a lot for business, and confirmed that my observation was on target.   Turkish hospitality is indeed extraordinary.

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    On Islam and terror in the Middle East

    We enjoyed a day and evening with our host's father, and our conversation covered many subjects, including both Turkish and American politics, and religion. I asked about the effect radical Islam was having on Turkey. This man pointed out that Turkey has long been a European country as well as an Asian nation with a mosque in every town (over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul alone). It is also the transit point for people heading from the east to the west (today, Syrian, Afghani, and Sunni refugees), and from the west to the east (as we were). Thus, Turkey is accustomed to many cultures and ideas flowing through its land.

    This fellow is a 'Secular Muslim'. (We were having this particular conversation over drinks at one on Istanbul's many rooftop bars.). He remarked that nowhere in the Quran is alcohol prohibited. The prohibition is implicit in preservation of the purity of every body created in God's image,;but nowhere is it expressly forbidden.   This man's decision to enjoy alcohol is between himself and God.   This feeling is remarkably in line with many Americans who don't want to be told what to do by others, but desire to be left alone with these choices of conscience.

    The concern with radical Islam is far more complicated than simply an opposition to being told what to believe. For one, there is the simple economics of Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. Tourism is an important part of the economy, and Americans don't visit Turkey as they used to. The next 9-11 type attack will turn the trickle of tourists to a complete halt.  Merchants know it, hotels know it, and nobody who is providing services to tourists likes to think about the effects of the next terror attack.

    There are national and tribal differences as well. Turkey's exposure to the rest of the world provides exposure to socially progressive ideas. (Turkey was one of the first European nations to adopt women's suffrage, in the 1920s). Other Middle Eastern countries similar to Turkey in their acceptance of such ideas include Jordan, Egypt, and once,   On the other hand, Lebanon. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are far less tolerant of others' religious expression.  That night we all agreed on one concept: God is great, it is people who malign God's will into something ungodly.

     

    The risk of visiting Turkey

    Before our trip, we had asked our host Atahan if my wife should wear a veil, and the question underscored our lack of exposure to the city of Istanbul or the country of Turkey. His response was that Istanbul is a city of over 20 million, twice the size of New York City, and is located half in Europe. There are plenty of veils in the city, including full burka'd women from Saudi Arabia (often with Gucci bags or expensive shoes), but few among the local women. Thus, our light skin and blue and green eyes barely stood out. We felt as safe in Istanbul as we would in any US or European city. I would not hesitate to return, and already look forward to further exploration in the countryside (We will avoid the east, a war zone).

     

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    Refugees    IMG_8068-1

    As mentioned, Turkey has long been a transit point for eastern and western passage. Today, thousands of Syrian and Sunni refugees are trying to get to Germany or the UK. These people come from varied backgrounds and personal circumstances, but all are trying to find a better life in the west. We watched this man catch a fish in the Bosphorus. When he landed his first, he pulled a plastic bag from a waste barrel to keep the fish. Nearby his 7 or 8 year old son was trying to sell tissue packages to passersby for 1 Turkish Lira (about $0.33).  Istanbul was NOT their final destination. There is no safety net for these foreign visitors (although Turkey has erected huge refugee camps in the east, near the Syrian border). Refugees are easy to spot, with their darker complexions, and frequently begging or selling something on street corners.  Istanbul, as with many visitors, is a transit point.

    The effect on Istanbul cannot be overstated,and concludes this reflection.  Visit and see people from all over the world, enjoy heartfelt hospitality, and see ancient places remarkably preserved..

     

    Tags: Turkish Hospitality, The Risk of Visiting Turkey, Istanbul, Turkish Customs, Istanbul Reflections, Turkey Vacation

    Fishing in Dumoine – licensing changes

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 @ 10:23 AM

    turn off the road toward quebecWhen visting the Dumoine region of Quebec, I’m struck first by what has changed, and then by what has stayed the same.   The man-made changes are usually more surprising, because the natural changes are such a part of the environment to be predictable in their dynamism.

    This year the man-made changes included a new licensing station location.   The licensure in Quebec is a byzantine operation created by the quebecois government many years ago; its original intent is hard to figure, but the net effect is a complicated system that seems to be more about holding on to make-work desk jobs in tired old air conditioned offices than managing a fishing stock. 

    Fishing in Quebec is controlled by ZECs (Zone-d'Exploitation-Contrôlée, meaning controlled harvesting). The first stop has always been to obtain a transit pass at the Rapides des Joachim (Swisha) ZEC.  Then, about an hour in, one has to buy a Quebec fishing license and a ZEC Dumoine 1, 3, 7-day or year fishing license at the ZEC Dumoine station.  A 3-day Quebec and Dumoine license costs about $90.   What the woman at the Swisha ZEC (where we got our transit pass, just off the paved road) didn’t tell us, was that the Dumoine licensure station had moved to a trailer about a mile back out on the paved road.  So after an hour on bush roads, we found the station closed and had to re-trace our steps to get our actual fishing licenses.  Fortunately, these stations keep long hours, so the extra two hours of driving across poor sandy roads didn’t prevent us from fishing early the next morning.  

    Moving both ZEC licensing offices closer together and near where the road turns to bush road makes sense, even if we did miss the trailer the first time by.  Maybe they’ll combine the offices, but that would mean losing the opportunity to pay someone to transcribe name and address information and collect a fee.   

    swisha air signThe road across the Swisha ZEC hadn’t changed much, be we were pleased to see that the Dumoine roads had been dragged, culverts cleared of beaver dams, even a new culvert installed.  Thus, the roads were greatly improved from last year.

    The changes that are constant are in the natural world.   For our five day stay (with three days of active fishing), we learned that the water temperature (taken at West Trout) was a balmy 62 degrees after the mild winter.  This is generally too warm for trout to feed aggressively, and our trout count (3) was weak.   We were skunked at our first lake, Whiskey, a normally well-stocked, easily accessible lake, and a proven good early hit.  In addition, high pressure weather followed us in, making the sun hotter and the wind calmer over each successive day.   That’s pike and walleye weather.

    Our second attempt at trout was at a highly controlled, natural-only (no stocked fish) Lake Benwah.   A special pass is required, and fishermen must report total caught, pardoned (released) and kept (eaten) on departure.   This usually productive water yielded two trout, only one worth keeping, with two canoes on the water early, and working for about three hours.     Thus, we changed our program to meet the conditions.  That afternoon we headed into the waters of the Fil de Grande, a mostly river, relatively fast moving body of water on the way home from Benwah.   Upstream from where the river crosses under the road is Lake Dixon.  At Lake Dixon we got well into the northern pike.  In fishing lingo, we touched a lot of big fish.

    The next morning, we decided to explore our camp lake, Lake Cullen, known for northern pike and walleye, a little better.   We got our even earlier that we had for Benwah, and fished new areas of the lake with great success, before breakfast.

    A great way to become familiar with the region is to join a club such as the Dumoine Rod and Gun Club, which maintains an array of cabins with easy access, on great lakes.  Members of these clubs also have years of great experiences they're usually glad to share.

    On balance, the trip was a success.  One noteworthy change was the lack of bugs.  Normally the black flies and mosquitoes are ruthless, infinite, and never ending.   One should never travel to water country without proper preparation.  In addition to your favorite bug spray, don’t leave behind a bug head net

    bug jacket,

    and even if you’re in a bug-proof cabin, I strongly recommend Coughlin’s mosquito netting to assure a good night’s sleep.

     

    Changing objectives on conditions is part of the experience of fishing in Quebec.  While we only ate trout one night, the fishing experience was fulfilling.  We’ll have to see what next year’s conditions bring.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and miss the bugs.

    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: vacation, travel, trip, Dumoine fishing, Dumoine licenses, ZEC Dumoine, Lake Whisky, Lake Benwah, Lake Dixon, Fil-de-Grande, canada

    Glaciers of New Zealand - Fox and Franz Josef

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Dec 07, 2011 @ 07:37 AM

    The backbone of New Zealand’s south island are the spectacular Southern Alps, the home to many glaciers.  Two of these are easily accessible by tourists traveling Route 6 along the western shore: the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glaciers.   Both are major glaciers working their way from high mountain valleys down to near sea level.  Each has unique characteristics; and both can be seen in a single day if you choose to do a self-guided tour.  Alternatively, pick either one -- you can't go wrong with either -- if you prefer to get right on the glacier via helicopter or a guided hike.

    Our approach from the south began with a stop for coffee and fresh salmon filets (which we’d have for dinner) at a salmon / coffee shop by a river near the Tasman Sea.  (Nice people, god coffee and pastry selection, and the salmon was great) Further up the road was a long sandy beach with inviting surf and broad views.  Once we left the Tasman Sea, the road began to serpentine as mountains came closer to the western shore.  One of the remarkable aspects of these glaciers is the proximity to the sea; almost as close as Glacier Bay, where glaciers fall right into the ocean.  But unlike glaciers falling into the sea, these glaciers leave large moaines and rubble accretions. 

    river from Franz Joseph resized 600

    The walk in to the Fox Glacier was a short and easy walk from the parking lot across a broad alluvial plain set between steep walls carved out over the past several hundred years.  Similar to the two century trend in Glacier Bay in Alaska, the Fox Glacier has retreated leaving

    Fox Glacier view

    moraines and a broad plain behind.  The access road from Route 6 is well maintained on a bed of glacial tailings, and the parking lot provides informative boards on the Glacier’s history and ecosystem.

    If you want to get up and actually get on the glacier, you’ll have to pay someone:  guided walks or helicopter tours are two primary choices, and several options are available on-line, or right in the towns of Fox Glacier.  Glaciers can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or aren’t familiar with the topography.   This ranger stops you from going past a demonstrably safe zone.

    Fox Glacier ranger syas stop

    Further north on Route 6 (aka Fox Glacier Highway) is the Franz Josef Glacier.  The main difference up in to the furthest free walk is the distance.  The walk is much longer, though flat and easy going.   The walk is definitely worth it if only to watch the river pouring out of a snow cave at the base of the glacier.  But the high waterfalls coming down the steep rocky walls were also worth the walk.  The combination of thunderous volume and cold humid air remind visitors of the power and size of these rivers of ice.

    Franz Josef Glacier with river

     

    We were a little disappointed that we couldn’t walk up the relatively well worn path to the glacier itself, but were reminded only a week or so later in a news item that rocks had fallen near the paths in a very close call for some visitors. 

    Franz Josef glacier snow cave disgorge

     

    The dynamic nature of glaciers may not be readily apparent when snow melts slowly and seems timeless.  But the  river disgorging from its accretion base is a stark reminder that a lot of snow is melting underneath, and eventually, something in the structure has to give.

    If we had it to do over again, we probably would have taken a tour up into the glacier for a deeper look, with trained guides and known safe access.  But having seen both in one day, we know that either glacier would be a great choice.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: travel plans, New Zealand, southern hemisphere, glaciers, fox, franz joesph, franz josef glacier

    New Zealand nights and Southern Sky stargazing

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Dec 05, 2011 @ 04:50 PM

    A trip to New Zealand for anyone from the northern hemisphere should include the treat on a clear night sky of a little southern hemisphere star gazing.  If you have the good fortune of being away from an urban center, which is easy on the south island, and catch a clear night, be sure to take time to look up to the night sky.

    southern hemisphere sky image via wikipedia resized 600

    Even if you’re only mildly interested in the night sky, the southern sky is completely different, and has some really cool features.  It is another of the mildly unsettling ‘opposites’ that a traveler from the U.S. will encounter, such as driving on the left, or realizing that a southern wind is a cold wind while a northern tropical wind is pleasantly warming.

    southern cross view image view wikipedia resized 600Back to the sky:  There is no star akin to our “North Star”, or “Polaris.”   This important northern hemisphere star, easily located if you can find the big dipper, is almost directly over the earth’s northern axis.   So if you can find the North Star, you can identify true north; it’s been a pillar of northern hemisphere navigation for thousands of years.  The southern hemisphere has no such fixture; instead, it has the iconic Southern Cross.  The Southern Cross is a beautiful and easy-to-locate constellation, but it is only generally south; it is not a navigable precise point, it rotates.  But you’re on vacation and have a GPS, so who cares?  The Southern Cross is distinctive and has some of the brightest stars in the night sky, so it’s visible early or in lightly hazy weather too.  The Cross appears on both New Zealand’s and Australia’s flags, so you know for the folks down under, it’s a cultural fixture.

    The next really cool object is that our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri; this is one of the two pointer stars to the Southern Cross.    It is also very bright (after all, it’s only about 4 light years away).  Aside from being bright and close, Alpha Centauri is actually a binary star: this means it is paired with another star, and the two rotate around each other in a seemingly perpetual figure skaters’ dance (and are known as A and B).    From my childhood, I recall the “Lost in Space’s original mission was to go to Alpha Centauri as our nearest neighbor, and since then have felt cheated that I couldn’t ever see this closest neighbor.   It’s easy in New Zealand.

    Another well known astronomical fixture that any hobby astronomer has read about and seen pictures of are the two Magellanic Clouds, two dwarf galaxies, rotating closely to our own Milky Way.  They appear as small clusters of stars; an early name for these was “The Sheep”, by the Persian Astronomer Al Sufi in the tenth century.  They are the brightest objects beyond our own Milky Way, and are classified as dwarf galaxies.  They are roughly 7000 light years and 14,000 light years across; our Milky Way is about 150,000 light years across, as a point of comparison.  The Large Magellanic Cloud was the source of a supernova in 1987, so you had to be in the southern Hemisphere to see that.

    night sky clouds

    Interestingly, the Zodiac , which includes constellations that early Greek and later Roman navigators watched and named, are visible in the southern hemisphere too.    The reason is that they are closer to the earth’s equator, and thus close to the horizon for both northern and southern viewers.  The seasonal appearances are caused by the earth’s tilting, making constellations appear in the night sky at different times of the year.

    Each of these can be appreciated without the benefit of a telescope, or even binoculars.  However, a visit to Lake Tekapo (only a few hours southwest of Christchurch) can get you a lot more.  Visit the Earth and Sky Astronomy tours for a visit to the Mt John Observatory or a separate view on a hill top (complete with serious telescopes, too).  Either will expose you to some of the many unique southern viewed galaxies, including some of the ones described here by a far more dedicated amateur astronomer than I.   It’s a real treat, even if your trip isn’t about astronomy.

    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: New Zealand, southern hemisphere, night sky, night time, stargazing, star watching, zodiac, southern cross, australia, southern hemisphere night sky, southern sky stargazing, new zealand nights, alpha centauri, magellanic clouds, southern viewers, lost in space, southern crux, crux

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