Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Serendipitous Life

I was reflecting on the nature of serendipity today, and thought I might as well write about it here. But first here’s one dictionary explanation for the word serendipitous:

serendipitous |ˌsɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪtəs|
adjective : occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a serendipitous encounter. 

So what sparked this post today? I am about half way through reading What The Robin Knows, by Jon Young. Subtitled, How Birds Reveal the Secrets of The Natural World, the book is a fascinating examination of the many signs and clues that birds use in their everyday lives.
A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Jon Young is guided by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds’ companion calls and warning alarms are just as important as their songs.” Source:
The internet, is of course a perfect example of serendipity in action. By following hyperlinks, web users are led from page to page and site to site, following links, interests, hunches and clues that often lead users far and wide across the modern web to places they never expected to go. Such was my discovery of Jon Young and his books, of which What The Robin Knows is just one of many.

Today, while checking through my Facebook page, the image you below popped up on my personal feed. The image was posted on the Facebook page of the Presidio of San Francisco and shared by one of my favourite American authors, Rebecca Solnit. Here is the description provided by the Presido of San Francisco: 
This morning our wildlife ecologist managed to snap a picture of a rare sighting of a grey fox! The last record of a grey fox sighting in the Presidio was in 2004. The fox scrambled onto some branches along with a raven as a coyote prowled around a bush below. Thanks to Jon Young for the incredible picture!
Fox and Raven, by Jon Young
What? thought I. Jon Young? Surely, this must be the same Jon Young that I am currently reading. I immediately headed over to the Presidio’s website and searched for Young’s name, and sure enough, I discovered that Jon had recently completed a free ‘Bird Language Leaders Workshop’ for the Presidio.

Forget ’six degrees of separation’, sometimes only three or four degrees separate us from each other—if not fewer. It is interesting (and probably futile) to speculate whether I would have paid attention to the image if I had not already been reading Jon Young’s book. Interesting too, to wonder about the coincidences that bring these disparate threads together and connect them in ways that seem totally random and unexpected.

Certainly, if I had not ‘discovered’ the books of Rebecca Solnit a year or so ago, I would never have connected with her via Facebook. And if I had not been browsing through iBooks for titles of interest a few weeks ago, I would never have seen What The Robin Knows or discovered the work of Jon Young. It is even possible, if not likely, that given the constant stream of Facebook updates I might have missed Rebecca Solint’s post if I had not checked my page when I did, and therefore missed the reference to Jon Young, and so on and on, and on.

Coincidence? Serendipity? Chance? Dumb luck? Who knows? But since I am writing about Facebook, birds, and the serendipitous nature of life, I will leave you with a video that also turned up on my Facebook stream this week which features a murmuration of starlings. The video is from Paul Tomlinson and at six minutes in length is quite mesmerising and meditative. Enjoy.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

AirBnB Parisian Style

My room with a view (sort of)
In a recent post Introducing AirBnB, I provided some background information to one of the fastest growing online short stay accommodation services in the world — AirBnB. To date, I have only used the service once—to book accommodation during a two week visit to Paris over the summer of 2014, and despite one or two hiccups, I obviously lived to tell the tale. And this is it. But first, a brief recap.
AirBnB began in 2008 when two designers who had space to share hosted three travellers looking for a place to stay. Today, AirBnB hosts are sharing spare rooms or their homes and apartments in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities.

As a solo traveller on a limited budget, I figured that finding accommodation via AirBnB would be cheaper than staying in a budget hotel, especially if I took into account the ability to supply my own breakfasts and prepare at least some of my main meals ‘at home’, and this in fact turned out to be the case. 

The process for selecting my accommodations was relatively painless, and involved creating a profile on AirBnB, searching through the available listings (using price as my main guide), reading reviews from previous guests, ensuring the location was suitable, the dates available, and the host personable. I should point out that I was in Greece at the time I began researching my Parisian stay, not at home in Australia, and it was from Greece that I flew to Paris. 

Chest of drawers, sofa bed, heater/fan, travel books
Having settled on a small studio apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, I made my booking and got in contact with Philippe my host. He was quick to assure me that everything would be ready on my arrival, and immediately sent me detailed directions for getting to the apartment from Charles de Gaulle airport. I deliberately timed my arrival in Paris for early afternoon. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing worse than landing at night in a ‘foreign’ country where you don’t speak or read the language, and having to make your way to your accommodations in the dark using public transport! It adds a layer of stress to travel that you just don’t need.

Once I reached the building on Rue Chardon-Lagache that was to be my home for the next ten nights, I was quickly met by Philippe and shown to the small studio at the very top of a typical Parisian apartment complex. Thankfully, the apartment had an elevator that was large enough (just) to carry myself, my small case and Philippe the seven floors to the top, although the cubicle was so small that I was grateful I didn’t suffer from claustrophobia.

Chest of drawers with sheets and bedding
To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by just how small the studio apartment was. I would have called it a garret, and as romantic as it is to think I was going to spend some time in a Parisian garret, I would have preferred a bit more space than what was on offer (the phrase ‘not enough room to swing a cat’ comes to mind). However, the room had been paid for, I had turned up as agreed, and there was nothing to do but make the best of a tight squeeze.

As you can see from the photographs illustrating this post, the room contained a sofa bed, a chest of drawers for storing clothes, a small electric stove, a bar fridge, a shower alcove, a collection of cooking and eating utensils, a number of guide books (mostly in French), a telephone and an excellent WiFi connection. There was a clean, shared toilet at the end of the passage which I had to share with one lone resident. During the ten days I stayed at the studio apartment I never heard, let alone saw the elderly gentleman with whom I shared this closet.

Philippe informed me that because I had booked ten nights, he was taking the opportunity to enjoy a short vacation of his own with his daughter, but assured me that if I needed anything I only had to call him. Since I am an independent traveller, I was not particularly concerned that he would not be at my beck and call, and anyway I did not anticipate needing to call him during my stay. Little did I know…but more about that below.

Location, Location, Location
Map of Paris's 16th Arrondissement 
The 16th Arrondissement takes in the Trocadero Gardens (directly opposite the Eiffel Tower), the massive Bois de Boulogne gardens, the Roland Garros tennis centre, any number of wonderful galleries and museums, and numerous foreign embassies.

The apartment was close to both Metro lines and several bus routes. Depending on where I wanted to go, I often jumped on the number 72 bus which provides a virtual rolling tour that takes in sections of the River Seine, the Trocadero (and the nearby Eiffel Tower), the Louvre Museum, the Tulleries Gardens, Place de la Concorde, and Palais de Chaillot before terminating near the Hotel de Ville. The apartment was also close to two Metro lines (#9, Exelmans, and #10, Chardon-Lagache), while the Pont du Garigliano station for the RER C line was also within walking distance of the room.

The well stocked supermarket was a few minutes walk from the studio as were numerous cafes, restaurants, pizza outlets, and other eating houses. I fantastic weekend farmers market took place close by, stocked with a wonderful array of fresh produce including fish, fresh and cured meats, cheeses, and all manner of fruit and vegetables.

Sink and two hotplates above; bar fridge below
Apart from the previously mentioned size of the room, the studio did not have a television, electric kettle or facilities to wash clothing. With regard to boiling water for tea and coffee, I made do by using a small saucepan. Hopefully, an electric kettle has been added to the inventory of items in the studio, even if a television has not. As for washing clothes, since I did not know where the nearest laundromat was located I made do by soaking and hand washing all my clothes in the small kitchen sink, and then rinsing items out whenever I had a shower. I then made sure I squeezed every drop of water out of the clothing before hanging them from a line I had brought along expressly for that purpose.

TIP: My technique for removing water from clothing is quite simple but effective: wring as much water out of the clothing as you can before wrapping each item of clothing in a bath or beach towel; take each end of the towel and twist them together as tightly as you can. Once all the excess water in the clothing has been absorbed by the towel you can hang the item up without worrying about water dripping onto the floor or onto items of furniture. Works for me every time.

[L] damaged drainage pipe       [R] WiFi and storage unit
Late in my stay, I was surprised — to say the least — when I noticed dishwashing water and suds pouring out the storage cupboard below the sink unit. On opening the cupboard door I saw that the ’S-bend’ drainage pipe had come apart. In fact, it had been put together so poorly that I was surprised the floor of the studio was not permanently soaked. I immediately got in contact with Philippe, and to his credit the problem was fixed within a matter of hours.

A couple of days before I vacated the room, I returned from a day out and about in Paris to discover the elevator was not working. By the time I had climbed seven floors to the top of the building my 66-year-old heart was pounding in my chest fit to bust. It was very sobering to learn that I am not as fit as I thought I was, but thankfully I did not need to head back out that night, so I had plenty of time to catch my breath and recover from my exertions. 

Even though other residents in the building must surely have contacted the relevant technicians to get the elevator moving again, I got in touch with my host once more (remember, he was trying to make the most of my extended stay, and had left on a short vacation of his own), and he promised to get someone to look into the problem. By the time I returned from my peregrinations around Paris the next day, I was delighted to see the elevator working again.

Apart from these two incidents, my first stay through AirBnB was a real delight, and as brief as my stay was, I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to live like a Parisian. I also appreciated the ability to prepare a few meals of my own, thereby saving money in the process. From this point of view I am more than happy to recommend that you give AirBnB a try.

However, as already mentioned in my previous blog post, make sure you do your homework, before committing to a booking. Ask questions of your host to be, and read any and all reviews from previous guests. There are always other rooms, so don’t feel you have to take the first option that presents itself. If in doubt—leave it out.

Happy trails.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Some good news out of Washington, DC. President Barak Obama’s Administration has moved to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, widely considered one of the most spectacular and remote areas in the world.

The Department of the Interior is releasing a conservation plan for the Refuge that for the first time recommends additional protections, and President Obama announced he will make an official recommendation to Congress to designate core areas of the refuge – including its Coastal Plain – as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The President’s decision builds upon years of public engagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the Comprehensive Conservation Plan and complete an environmental impact statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by law. The plan will guide the Service’s management decisions for the next 15 years.

Currently, over 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, more than 60 percent of the refuge – including the Coastal Plain – does not carry that designation.

Based on the best available science and extensive public comment, the Service’s preferred alternative recommends 12.28 million acres – including the Coastal Plain – for designation as wilderness. The Service also recommends four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning – for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most diverse wildlife in the arctic, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. More than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home. Lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, tundra and forests make up the remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions.

The refuge holds special meaning to Alaska Natives, having sustained their lives and culture for thousands of years. The Gwich’in people refer to the Coastal Plain of the refuge as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” reflecting the area’s importance to their community, maintaining healthy herds of caribou and an abundance of other wildlife.

Since Congress is the only authority able to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers, one can only hope that Republicans and Democrats can put aside their differences long enough to turn this dream into a reality.

More information will be available at


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