Faces of Burundi – Part 1

Burundi Baby

I’m in Burundi, following a group on a humanitarian mission to explore ways they can help this country — which has recently emerged from civil wars and violence — develop better health, education and agriculture as it builds a new democracy.

When we visited a pottery shop, we met many of the workers who are from the ethnic minority of the Batwa, better known as pygmies in the west.

Here is a tiny baby (notice the size of his hand compared to that of Philip, the man holding her), and a woman who was among the dozen or so who had lined up to have their picture taken in front of their pottery shop.

Burundi Woman’s face at potter workshop

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Curious Subletter

little doll in the windowWhen you sublet an apartment, you’re invited into someone else’s world, living among their most cherished things — family photos, trinkets collected in travels, works of art — and using them to piece together a bigger picture of a person you may have only met briefly to exchange keys and a rent check.

I’m subletting a place in Brooklyn for a couple of months, the one-bedroom apartment of a photographer.  Her work is beautiful, and I’m struck by the little things she chose to adorn the walls of her home.  As I stand at the kitchen sink doing dishes, I look at this little figure of a girl, standing in the sunlight of a sliver of a window above the stove.   I’m sure there’s a story behind this little piece of folk art, and its brethren on other walls in the flat.  Maybe the apartment’s owner will tell me when I return her keys to her.

Flamingowatch!

I promised you the back story of the plastic avian lawn ornaments, but I’ll begin with a story about Africa:

LAKE NAKURU, February1995
The layer of pink was like frosting atop the white cake of the soda lake beach. Above the pink line, the air rippled in the African heat and dozens of figures hovered, darted and landed in the scene, flickering like birthday candle flames floating above the lake.

Lawn Flamingo closeupThat lake was Nakuru, home of the first national park in Kenya, and the pink frosting was a layer of hundreds of thousands of pink birds, the “lesser” flamingoes that gather at Kenya’s caustic soda lakes to dine on the voluminous algae. Inside the microscopic algae is a pigment that makes the birds’ feathers pink.

Looking out across the lake, especially through a long lens that compressed the100-degree heated air, the scene appeared as a mirage.

But as you walk closer, the harshness of the environment starts to become clear. When you breathe in the white chalky dust from the beach, it stings your nostrils. If we were to step into these waters, the alkaline stew would burn our flesh like stepping into a bucket of lye. But the birds have a coating on their legs and beaks so they can walk in the shallow waters of the lakes and dip down to scoop algae, sifting it in their mouths.

I was there to produce a World of Audubon special, a co-production with the BBC Natural History Unit. My best TV pals Peggy and Greg were there, along with the presenters from the Beeb, who are arguably some of the smartest TV hosts on the planet. They had logged countless hours in the African bush, and really knew their stuff, even deducing which animal had killed the waterbuck behind my tent one night. It was a leopard, they surmised.

We — Peggy, Greg and I — were part of an environment-themed news magazine on Turner Broadcasting, a show that had taken us around the world to rainforests and toxic waste dumps, urban brownfields to wide open spaces. But this was a chance to become instant naturalists, learning from some amazing experts on the ground, and, for me, to see the great African fauna for the first time. Lake Nakuru National Park is fenced in, and features almost all the major animals except hippos and elephants. Lions and leopards lurked in the bush. Driving into the grasslands behind the lake, we would see Rhinos grazing and, one evening, we shined our headlights on cheetahs gorging on an antelope, with jackals in the background, looking for room to nose in and get a bite.

Continue reading “Flamingowatch!”

Images from an Autumn Weekend

Ventura mast with tappan zee bridgeYesterday, I boarded the Ventura again for one of the final sails of the season. This time, we took the Metro North railway to Tarrytown, New York and boarded the sailboat at the docks there. After motoring under the Tappan Zee bridge, a cantilever span across the Hudson River completed in 1955, Captain Pat (behind my dear friend Kathryn in the second photo) hoisted the sails and we glided by wind power along the west bank of the river. Katherine and Captain Pat on the VenturaWe sailed on a beam reach with the wind to our right for a couple of hours, taking in a great view of the palisades on the Hudson’s west bank, until the wind shifted to directly ahead, putting us “in irons” as the sailors say, and Pat had to turn the motor on again. From Tarrytown to the docks at the Wintergarden, near the former World Trade Center site, was about four and a half hours. Though the fall foliage hasn’t arrived yet, you couldn’t ask for a more delightful, partly cloudy, but crisp fall day.

Masks in Prospect park

Today, I went for long, meandering walks in Prospect Park, between the Brooklyn neighborhood where I’m now living (Prospect Lefferts Gardens) and my old neighborhood, Park Slope. As I came back, I noticed these big puppet masks and costumes sitting on a park bench near a gazebo, across from a meadow where a bunch of Caribbean islanders were playing soccer.

big green head maskI have no idea what the masks of a big green head and a scary gray bug were doing there. Did I miss a pageant? Is it just practice for Halloween? The former occupants of the costumes were nowhere to be seen, or I would have asked.

The Power of the Purse

Solomon with purse One of the great joys of video journalism is the diversity of assignments. My work with the New York Times, for instance, would have me interviewing rock stars and rock star wannabes at a major music festival one week, discussing a scientific curiosity the next, then moving on to tackle a thorny constitutional issue with an investigative reporter.

So it comes as no surprise to me that the first assignment back in New York is quite different from the most recent stories I did for the web [pieces about the political tensions and literal gun battles going on in war-torn Lebanon]. Last week, I joined New York Times magazine Questions For columnist Deborah Solomon as she queried New Yorkers on their handbag purchases.

Why do people pay thousands of dollars for a designer handbag?

In five minutes of video, no one could completely solve the mystery behind the power of the purse, but the answers Deborah gets from people on the sidewalks, peering into luxury store windows, offer some insight and were a lot of fun (and if you listen closely, you can hear me laughing in the background after some of her quips).

It was immersion therapy for my culture shock after a year in Cairo. (Though I don’t think you’ll see me sporting a thousand dollar Prada “man purse” any time soon.)