Monday, May 28, 2012

Cultural immersion

   Visiting a big U.S. city after months in tiny Monteverde, Costa Rica is both exciting and a bit overwhelming. On our trip back to Wisconsin this year, one of our stops was several days in Washington DC, where we gloried in the wealth of the various Smithsonian museums. The Smithsonian is the largest museum in the world; in fact it is really 19 separate museums, most on the Mall in DC. What better place to immerse oneself in culture and history? (Note to frugal travelers: while food and lodging in DC are pricey, all the Smithsonian museums are free.)
   In a few days, it is impossible to see all the museums or—depending on one's style—possibly impossible to see all of a single museum. We met someone who lives in the area and claims he is still working on a single floor of the Museum of American History. I prefer to dip and dabble and the lack of entrance fees encourages that. Our favorite museum on this visit was the relatively new National Museum of the American Indian. (It helps that their cafeteria is amazingly good, with inspiration from native foods.) The building itself is curvaceous and lovely inside and out. One exterior wall has a huge series of waterfalls.
Around it are planted native plants and trees, such as the Liriodendron, or Tulip tree that dropped these leaves. This is quite an exotic tree for a Wisconsinite.
  We spent a lot of time getting visually overstimulated at art museums. While we were looking at the Vermeers in the National Gallery of Art, some very important people came in. I have no idea who the VIP foreign couple was, but I couldn't help but notice that the small room got quite crowded with tall men trying to look casual. I guess they were bodyguards. Not the sort of thing one can snap a photo of but an interesting experience. The National Gallery has three Vermeers and a painting that is attributed to Vermeer. It's fun to examine compare that painting to the others and try to decide if it is a Vermeer or not.
  At the Hirshorn Museum, I loved Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez. It is an installation of colored light tubes in a very white space that viewers are allowed to enter.
   Outside of the museums, we found this knit graffiti in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Thanks to who ever installed this cheery bit of knit art. You can never go wrong with the rainbow sequence.
   It felt like an art installation but it wasn't: riding in an empty Metro car. Usually the cars were quite full. Suddenly we were in one that was completely empty other than us.
 The nitty-gritty: All Smithsonian Museums in DC are free. May is school trip season. Museums are less crowded on weekends but even on weekdays the art museums were fine. It's best to go to the most popular museums on the weekends. (We visited the Museum of American History on a Sunday and the popular simulation rides in the basement had no line at all.) The National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of the American Indian both have very good cafeterias. The Textile Museum near Dupont Circle isn't part of the Smithsonian and requests donations; it's a must see for fiber lovers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mountain of death?

   This past weekend we went to Cerro de la Muerte in southern Costa Rica. Many tourists wrongly assume the highest mountain pass on the Inter-American Highway is called the mountain of death because of the condition of the road. The road is quite good now and the name comes from earlier times when people walked or rode horses from their hot, lowland homes and sometimes died from hypothermia in the mountains when they over-nighted at chilly high elevations. Fortunately, just before we pulled out of the driveway I decided to run back into the house and grab a wool stocking cap and gloves which I ended up wearing most of the time. We were birding at elevations of 2200-3640 meters (7218-11,942 feet). Even in the tropics it is cold up that high.
   My "target bird" — the one I most wanted to see on this trip—was the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher. I don't know how we missed it on our other trip to this area, because it was almost the first bird we saw when we got out of the car and we saw it very frequently for the entire 5 day trip.
    Sometimes birds were hard to see due to fog. This was the way it looked when I saw my first Silky. There's a reason they call them cloud forests.
   We stayed at Savegre Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota and were extremely pleased with our cabin, the food, and the extensive trail system. The primary cloud forest above the lodge is made up of mostly oaks but if you are used to oak forests in the U.S., you will find they look very different in the tropics. Notice that it can be sunny in the cloud forest.
Tropical trees often don't have branches until an incredible height and this tree was so tall I couldn't get any of its branches in the photo. This particular Quercus bumelioides was named tree of the year in 2010 by InBio, Costa Rica's National Institute for Biodiversity.
    Many people go to San Gerardo de Dota to see the Resplendent Quetzal. We saw quite of few and enjoyed seeing them fly high above us. Easier photo subjects were the wonderfully comical Acorn Woodpeckers that come to the lodge's garden to eat bananas at the feeder.
   We were amused by how these Sulfur-winged Parakeets liked to sit so close to each other.
Continuing the humor theme, check out the "beard" on this ferocious little ball of fluff. He's the Talamancan version of the Volcano Hummingbird, one of the smaller hummingbirds in Costa Rica. It's hard to believe that such a tiny bird can live in the cold páramo above the elevation where forests can grow.