Monday, June 25, 2007

Bab al Shams Endurance Ride Vet-In Day

Friday June 22 2007

Things were still getting set up at the Misura Endurance village the day of vetting in. We 3, Nicolas, Alice, and I, hung around the venue all day, and baked... and I mean baked. We all know by now I don't like the heat, but this was beyond merely hot. It was broiling, in the 90's, and very humid, with little breeze. And it wasn't just me whining; everybody commented on it, fanning themselves, wilting, and thinking of the horses in the ride tomorrow. Annett from South Africa said this was a shock to her. And do you think there'd be ONE ice cube on the place? Or even a cold drink? No, the cokes were warm, beer warm, the water bottles sat in their cases in the sun until it was time to open a case to sell. Now in Vienna last summer I couldn't find a glass of ice anywhere, so I think this is a European thing (or an American thing, craving ice, or maybe it's just a Merri thing), but I think everyone there would have appreciated something cool and refreshing - and they probably would have sold a load of drinks. But, we were all in Assisi, Italy, so, really, what was a little heat?

There were all shapes and sizes of horses that vetted in for the ride. Peter Chantler from South Africa, a tall man, got a short Italian horse to ride. Some looked nice, some a bit scruffy; some had rough-looking gaits and some floated over the ground. And the trot out lanes were over undulating ground - sometimes you had to look two and three times to see if it was the horse or the ground that made them look uneven. One of the vets commented on this also.

There were around 75 entries, 54 of them Italian, with visiting riders from the UAE, Spain, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand (Jenny Champion), France, Chile, Russia, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Australia (Meg Wade)(whose suitcase was now in Japan, or somewhere).

There would be 5 loops, of 33.1 km, 31.9 km, 26.5 km, 16.7 km, and 11.8 km, with all vet checks in base camp. The trails would wind through several villages, including Assisi, climb a few hills, and follow many, many paved roads. At this ride, the Formula One finish would be tried: one hour after the first horse crossed the finish line (whether or not it passed the vet check), the out vet gates closed. Meaning those out on the last loop could finish, but no one else would be allowed out on course. It would be an experiment to see how this finish would work, and how, when, and if it might become a standard at some rides in the future.

The evening rider meeting stretched out extra long as, in addition to an Italian vet interpreting for Ian Williams, this fairly unfamiliar way of ending the ride was gone over and over. Our group of Alice, Nicolas and I drifted back to our hotel with our driver, and then we went out at 9 PM in the old town with Carlos Ponferrada (the FEI vet I met, with his wife Mariola, in New Zealand) to dinner. We were dying to sit outside, instead of inside a stuffy building, and Alice found one of the few restaurants still open, where we could sit outside under a covered roof.

And here again, my Ice Dilema continued. The others ordered; I ordered a dinner, and a coke. With ice, please. "Ice? The coke is cold." (Note: "cold" cokes here aren't cold - they are cool. I am an affionado of these things.) I said, "I think I would still like ice please." The waiter shook his head. "OK..."

So our salads come, the others get their wine, but I get no coke. Well, I think, he will bring my coke with my dinner. Well he never brought my dinner. The other three dishes came, and Carlos, Nicolas, and Alice politely waited to eat, figuring my meal was on its way. I said "Please, eat," but they waited. And waited. The waiter finally came to ask if everything was okay - since nobody was eating - and we all pointed to my empty place. "My order?" "Oh? Did you order? What did you order?" Eventually my plate came, and I said, "I had a coke also?" "A coke?" And I was brought a coke - luke-warm. I just chuckled, because that is the story of me and my cold drink cravings in Europe (and Malaysia, and New Zealand, and Australia), but Carlos insisted they bring me some ice. I then got a whole tumbler full, and I used Every Single Cube of Ice! And who knows, maybe that will be the last ice I get in Europe for 3 months.

Nicolas was very pleased to buy us all dinner, having the enjoyable company and conversation with American, Spanish, and French friends. It is a common sentiment echoed by so many people in this sport, whether it be the riders or crew or organizers. It's the acquaintances and friendships made that are one of the most enjoyable benefits.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Thursday June 21 2007


Our driver picked up the four of us – Alice Proust, Nicolas Wahlen, (the professional organizer of Compiegne), The Raven (stuffed in my bag), and me, and shuttled us to the Misura Endurance Village in the valley just below Assisi Town. Nicolas, formerly from the jumping world, (“I'm too old for that now,”) is now an enthusiastic endurance rider, and is doing a 90 km ride next weekend near his home in France.

Some 1200 people and 1 Raven attended the opening Gala Dinner for Assisi Endurance Lifestyle. Alice and Nicolas worked the crowd, introducing me to many people they knew, including Jane and Ian Williams, the FEI Endurance Director. Pedro from Chile and Jodi from Jordan again mentioned to me the Wadi Rum endurance ride in Jordan, and rides in Chile. This is what I really relish about endurance – people from all over the world getting together all around the world, for endurance riding. It can be far off in a wooded corner of a small town in Australia, or under a medieval city in Italy, it can be flat out racing on the sands of Dubai or the toughest mountain trail you'll ever ride on the Tevis course in America, but we're all here for horses – those tough amazing animals that take us on trails and adventures we as humans could never do (except for the few elite athletes) on our own two legs.

Champagne and special Umbrian hors-d'oeuvre were served while the elegant crowd mingled. The Raven fit right in with the world of culture and high society – he has no social airs and always enjoys himself. Around 10 PM there was a mass migration toward the tables set up surrounding the stage. The show started off with a fashion show under the lights, with the lit up Baslilca of St Francis on the hill, and higher up the lit up Rocca Maggiore castle, providing the backdrop for the open air countryside setting.

It's a tough job serving 1200 people a 3-course dinner, but with the waiters plying the crowd with plenty of wine and champagne, we hardly noticed the passage of time – or the blowing of some power breakers - between the delectable risotto and pasta and beef dishes. At 11:30 PM a jazzy band started playing, then at midnight, a fireworks show started from the castle on top of the hill. Nice complement to the meal – the crowd applauded politely, when... BAM! In the field right behind the stage, the REAL fireworks show began. Fireworks are almost always entertaining, but I must say that I've never seen one as spectacular as this, including any 200-year anniversary fireworks shows on July 4th in the USA. They were dramatic, colorful, choreographed, and had the entire crowd, tipsy or not, oohing and aahing in delight like little kids. Bravo!

After the final dish was served, the crowd drifted from the tables to the bar area where fresh fruits, coffee, and gelato were served to polish off the evening. We hung around and visited with more people, including the veterinarian Carlos of Spain, and Meg Wade, whose suitcase still hadn't shown up, so she'd been shopping again and found a pretty white dress. The airlines don't know where her bag is (containing among other things, her helmet and riding tights and weight pad), and when they hear her voice they disconnect the line!

When you hang out with the FEI director, naturally a main topic of conversation that continuously comes up is the improvement of the sport of endurance – qualification criteria for World Championships, finish times and methods, training of horses and qualification of riders. Many people have many differing opinions, and those are from many points of view: from directors of the sport, riders, veterinarians; all address the primary concern of the welfare of the horse, and most opinions have valid points that are worth considering.

Business aside, it was a lovely evening of mingling and eating and imbibing and entertainment. The Raven, having already sat on Royal Gold Carpet, had his spin on the Fashion Runway – after the models and TV cameras of course, so he wouldn't distract from the show.

Assisi Endurance Lifestyle

Thursday June 21 2007

Downstairs in the charming Hotel Pallotta, I again met sisters Sally and Jill, and Jill's daughter Ginny, from Alaska and travelling around Europe. We lingered over cappuchinos and told travel stories again. I introduced them yesterday to the sport of Endurance Riding – they hadn't heard of it, but they had seen “that movie Viggo Mortensen was in – Hidalgo! He was reason enough to watch it!” I gave them an earful of my sport and my job – homeless, stuck travelling around Europe (with a riding helmet, and The Raven) for :)

It was time to switch hotels – Stystema Eventi and Assisi Lifestyle Endurance are putting up Alice Proust (who reports for from Europe) and I at the Fontebella Hotel for the weekend. I figured it was MUCH easier for me to get myself the half-mile or so to my hotel, even loaded down with too many heavy bags, than it was to try to track down someone from the event and then wait for a driver or taxi to first find me, then get me through the narrow one-way streets of the town to my next hotel. I don't have a working phone, as I don't have a SIM card for it, which wouldn't do me any good anyway, since my New Zealand phone power cord does not work with any of my 'universal' power adaptors.

And the biggest reason that I decided to move myself was, of course, was that it was all downhill, and I had a rolling suitcase. The only catch to that was, my bags were heavy, and though I could put one heavy bag on top of the rolling suitcase, since it was all downhill, should the suitcase get away from me, it would become a rolling lethal weapon that could easily mow down some nun or tourist, or smash into a parked car, or through a shop window, or over a retaining wall to a city street below.

It was all downhill, but it was a strenuous effort, holding with a death grip onto that rolling suitcase, sometimes having to carry 3 of my 4 bags for safety's (others' safety) sake, and I was worn out and a bit disheveled by the time I got to the 3-star Fontebella. The staff first looked at me askance, as perhaps I didn't look like their normal clientele delivered by a driver, instead looking more like a worn-out backpacker (like I usually am) having taken a wrong turn. Once they understood I had a room there, they cheerfully gave me my key, and a nice man ported my bags up via a lift, and I partook of the shower, my first of, I'm sure, several for the day.

Alice wasn't arriving till the afternoon, so I chose to walk down to the Misura Village - those white tents going up down in the valley below, the basecamp for the endurance ride. It was one HOT day again, and people were scurrying all over getting things ready for the weekend event – setting up tents, a stage, bars, equipment.

As I wandered around, who says hi to me but Meg Wade and her “groom, assistant, secretary,” Linda Tanian, who I met at the Nowhere Creek ride in Australia in April. Meg was wearing a cute pristine all-white tennis-looking outfit – nothing I would have pictured her in – and that was because her luggage did not make it to Italy! Linda's made it, and Meg's saddle made it (she was carrying it around), but all she had to wear was the high heels and a nice warm outfit that she wore on the plane from a cold Australian winter, so they went shopping first thing upon their arrival.

I followed them around to the stables, where Meg left her saddle, and asked about her horse, which wasn't arriving till tomorrow. There were a few horses there, some bedded down in stalls, some out grazing; there were a few Italians there, a South African man Peter Chantler, and I saw a Slovakian man getting on a horse.

I walked with Meg and Linda back to the tent area, where we ran into another rider... I asked his name, Pedro, from Chile. Ah, I said, “I'm from” “Oh! I've been trying to get Steph to come to Chile, but she won't commit.” I said “I'll come!” “OK!” And later in the conversation, he mentioned Wadi Rum, and I shamelessly piped up, “Oh, I've ALWAYS wanted to go to Jordan!” “You want to come? OK, we will invite you, give me your card and I will email you.” Oh, here's hoping!

And now the scoop on Assisi Endurance Lifestyle 2007:

The Bab Al Shams Endurance Cup 2007 in Assisi is not just an endurance race. There are some 100 riders - 80 Italians and 20 international riders - scheduled to ride in the 120 km race in and around Assisi on Saturday, but it is also a weekend of multiple multicultural events, including a socio-economic “Voices of Arabic Women” convention, an economic international forum, “Italy – United Arab Emirates: Guiding lines for development of a common increase,” a Gala dinner, a dog show, “Momenti Gourmet - gourmet and tasting sessions: the sampling of wine and food based on a concept of fusion cuisine which represents the idea of integrating and respecting international traditions, products and cultures” (oh boy I'm looking forward to that!), live concerts, and a closing ceremony.

The main sponsors of the ride are Bab Al Shams, Misura, Vodaphone; Mercedes-Benz Rossi is the Official Car of the event. There are numerous other sponsors, companies with everything from outdoor furniture to engineering firms to Inrizzardi (who makes yachts, and the electric motorcycles that Meg lusted after and wanted to take for a spin), to cars and hotels.

And then there's the Gala Dinner tonight. I cannot describe this better than the description in “A truly magical evening, worthy of being described as an event of a 'Thousand and One Nights.' Now one of the most sought-after events on the social calendar, every year the Gran GalĂ  dell'Endurance captivates and surprises the lucky guests who are able to experience and attend such a sophisticated, elegant show.

For this special edition of Assisi Endurance Lifestyle 2007, a unique backdrop will create a magical atmosphere and an exceptional experience - Assisi by night: a magnificent natural 'fresco' for an evening that will be organised inside a 'Misura Village' resplendent with lights, perfumes, music and enchanting surprises.

The tables will be decked with an array of flavours, aromas, tastes and colours that will delight the senses and offer a perfect opportunity for conversation and socialising. The evening is intended to be the most exclusive opportunity for Public Relations between the members of the local and international 'jet set' from the world of culture, high society, politics and the economy. Invitation only.”

It was the “Invitation Only” that worried me, which usually indicates something I don't particularly fit in well with,
and when I found Alice and I had an invitation, it was the “dress code” that might have disqualified me. However, I always say, It's not what you wear, but how you wear it. I think I can throw something together.

It goes without saying, The Raven II would be attending also - if he can attend ceremonies with Kings and Princes and Shaikhs, he can certainly attend Gala Dinners!

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Tuesday June 19 2007


Buon giorno! Hello, good day! Really can't complain when a handsome Italian man in a suit and tie is holding a sign, “Merri Melde,” at the Rome airport and picking me up in a Mercedes SUV! (Actually, it's not bad either when a young Indian man in shorts is holding a hand-written card “Ms. Mary” in the Madras airport and picking me up in a beater two-door with the muffler about to fall off. It's not bad getting picked up in any foreign airport nowadays.)

Andrico from Assisi Endurance Lifestyle, one of the organizers of this weekend's 120 km Bab el Sham's Endurance Ride Cup, drove me the 2+ hours from Rome to Assisi, through the region of Umbria in central Italy, a green lush countryside, first through farmland, then rolling forested hills and valleys and canyons. We passed several towns, many clustered on hillsides as part of old fortresses, one of which was Assisi.

We drove up and into the old town built on a hill, racing through and around the narrow streets in our Mercedes, dodging tourists, up and up, and Andrico dropped me off at my hotel. The hotel owner was off at a restaurant, (I was early) and so I sat waiting on the stone staircase, drinking a delicious cold bottle of water from the little Alimentary shop across the street. The next door shop owner was concerned I was locked out of my hotel, and he went looking for Stefano, and made phone calls, but I wasn't worried, because I was SITTING ON A MEDIEVAL STAIRCASE IN ITALY!!

After a while, Stefano showed up and checked me in, carried my two heavy bags upstairs (thanks!), showed me my room, opened the windows to let the light (air) in. No air conditioning here, and it was quite warm, so I asked for a fan. “A what?” “A fan, for air,” and I made hand motions of air blowing on me. He left and returned with a hair dryer. “Oh! Thanks, but I meant a Fan, like air conditioning?” “Ah, yes!” He brought me a fan which saved me in the night because it was quite warm, and the windows had to be closed because of mosquitoes.

However, the view out my room (if you climb on the ledge, because the windows are high up), I have this fantastic view over the rooftops of this beautiful old town down into the valley.

I went outside to wander around – lovely old medieval city of stone houses, full of “hill-town charm,” peppered with ancient churches. It has the well-preserved and still-standing remains of eight fortified entrance portals – which you drive through to enter the town - and town walls. The origin of the name Assisi is unknown, though legend has it that the queen of Troy's brother, Asio built it. It dates back to pre-Roman times, first inhabited by the Umbri (6th century BC), then by the Romans. The Christian faith was brought to Assisi in the 3rd century AD. After the fall of the Roman empire, Assisi was besieged and razed several times throughout history. The Rocca Maggiore Fortress, sitting on the top of the hill guarding the town, was built for defending the city around 1174 AD, but the citizens of Assisi did the same thing to the fortress – besieged it and razed it - due to its symbolism of despotic power. In 1367 rebuilding of the fortress began, and it was enhanced throughout the centuries, and it still stands over the city, with its walls and towers extending into the distance.

Assisi is best known as the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order. He followed his calling in life, much to his father's chagrin, begging for the poor, asking God for enlightenment, nursing lepers, restoring ruined churches, embracing poverty, preaching, (though he chose never to be an ordained priest), and eventually founding the Franciscan Order.

Two years after his death in 1226 AD, he was pronounced a saint by the Pope, and the building of the Basilica of St Francis began. I think we can assume Francis was not only a saint but a horse (or at least donkey) lover, because legend has it that on his deathbed, his donkey wept as he thanked it for carrying him and helping him throughout his life. :)

The Basilica sits majestically at the northwest corner of Assisi hill-town, and it houses one of the biggest collections of art from the greatest painters of the 13th and 14th centuries. Saint Francis lies in a crypt under the floor of the church. You can view St Francis' simple, ragged, patched tunic made of sheep's wool (can't touch it though, it's under glass!).

I stopped at a corner restaurant and sat outside at a table with the Raven and had, after a panini sandwich, ice cream, which was festively decorated with caramel-dripped cookies and a colorful foil sparkler. Bellisimo! Great way to start my work in Italy!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Going Forward (Italy), Looking Back (India)

Sunday June 17 2007

The Equestrian Vagabond is on the road again... packed my bags and my NEW RAVEN II, and will be heading to Europe Monday to cover endurance events there for a few months, the first being the 120 km Bab Al Shams Endurance Cup 2007 in Assisi Italy, then Florac in France, then, places as yet unknown.

I've changed my packing strategy somewhat: ONE book, not FOUR books. I didn't even finish reading a single one of those I carried on my last 3-month trip, and I dumped them along the way. This time I'm carrying one book - a big thick heavy one: Shantaram. It was a gamble on buying a $40 book (it better be good!), and purposing to read a 960+ page book (it better be good!), and carrying around this book that weighs about the same as four books. It's a biographical novel about an Australian man who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay India to start a new life of sorts, and right away his recounting of catching a train in Bombay – something I did - had me laughing aloud, and it made me go back to my travel journals of India to re-read about some of my train trips in India in 1991.

Here's a look back at my Bombay to Cochin train trip:

MON Dec 23 ...At Bombay we could catch the 3:30 PM train, express superfast to Cochin, said the ticket man, (picture him saying this with the typical and unique Indian 'head bob') arriving there at 7 AM tomorrow, Christmas Eve. We were a bit elated, since we thought we might be stuck on a train Christmas Day. The only catch: we'd be riding in the dreaded 2nd class unreserved out of Bombay, overnighting it. Oh, God. We found that an hour before departure we could try asking a trainmaster for any remaining reserved seats, so we were filled with hope against hope that we could travel in second class reserved, not second class unreserved. Oh, please, Travel Gods, get us reserved seats!

We tried asking at 2:30, and found an absolutely full train. A Beyond Full Train, as they always are here. James said he thinks the train system here is fairly well organized, just too crowded. I think it’s way unorganized and way too crowded. If there are seats for 100 people on a car, they sell at least 150 tickets, or 1500 tickets – I don't think anybody really keeps count. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “full” train – except maybe in reserved first class travelling, which we budget backpackers don't do out of principles (now, explain these to me again?). Oh, God, here we go, a 15 hour, unreserved, 2nd class overnight Indian train. What an experience THIS is gonna be.

In the big train stations, at least for the long train trips in the packed 2nd class unreserved cars, there are people you can pay, let's not say bribe, to secure you a seat. Well worth it because you are unlikely to get anywhere to sit otherwise. One of these guys offered to get us seats, for 70 rupees. 70 rupees! (This was about $11.) I said No way! Next guy offered for 20 rupees each (about $3 each), which we agreed to, and he disappeared into the seething mass of people cramming into the cars, and he popped back and waved at us. Sure enough, the man got us seats: a whole top ‘bunk,’ for James and I and our backpacks – i.e. a luggage rack - and despite the 3,752 people fighting for space on this train car, nobody even tried to make us move out of these luxury 'seats', not that we were going to budge for anything.

Things could be worse up on this luggage rack, and they really are, when I look around me. People are sitting on the floors, on peoples' laps, 5 people to a bench made for 3, 2 people to a seat, it’s hot, noisy, my head hurts, and we’re going to be here 15 hours. I laughed and told James, “If I had known I’d be spending Christmas like this, I’d’ve stayed at home!” My goal to get me through this, is Cochin: Christmas Eve in Cochin near the coast, in 15 hours. If I don't think about it, I can stand 15 hours in here.

Chaos on board the typical Indian 2nd class UNRESERVED train: A man boarded with apples and nearly started a riot on the car. The whole car started screaming, the apple man screamed and gestured and shoved apples and grabbed them back, and people grabbed at the apples and screamed. I couldn't figure out what everyone was so excited about, I mean, either you want apples or you don’t. I thought he was going to start slashing with his knife - he was about to start foaming at the mouth. There was a continuous parade of sellers before the train pulled out and when we stopped briefly at stations; sellers with tea, food, or trinkets, jumping on and off the train and trying to shove through the sea of humanity crowding the benches and floors.

And getting on and off trains in India (at least in this class of travel), is not an experience for the faint-hearted. There's no sense or order to it. People in the station want on the train, NOW, by God, and people on the train want off, NOW, by God, and nobody realizes that letting people OFF the train first would make the most sense; and the jockeying for position begins before the doors ever open. The moment they do, the reverse Tug of War explodes, people shoving in and people shoving out, elbows flying, people yelling and pushing and crushing each other, sometimes rather viciously, crawling over each other. If you don't join in the Tug of War, you lose because you don't make it on or off the train before it pulls out of the station! It was amusing to watch from up on our luggage rack, but I've been in the crush before and it's anything but amusing.

One man sitting below us got a burr under his butt and started screaming and – AH! FIGHT! - punching one of the 4 guys right across from us on the luggage rack (who was egging him on); and the Screaming Man gestured up at us a few times. They were like two little kids on the playground, screaming and swinging fists and the THUD of hits on flesh, while people next to them ducked and shrunk in their seats because there was nowhere to move out of the way. I hoped punches wouldn't fly our way, because there was nowhere for us to go either. I think Screaming Man was a bit miffed that only James and I and our 2 big backpacks and 2 little backpacks occupied our luxury luggage rack seat, (though there was no room for anything or anybody else!) though what it had to do with the one of four guys on the luggage rack opposite us, I didn't know. I wasn't scared, I was fierce: No way was I budging from this 'spacious' luggage rack stuffed with James and me and our bags.

And finally after rolling along slowly for several hours, about 9:30 PM people quit eying our ‘roomy’ rack and more or less left us alone. Screaming Man never made another peep. From our perch up high, we couldn't see anything out the train windows – only the ground flying by right beside the train. It was quite claustrophobic, with all these people crammed in the train car and no way to see out. If I thought about it, I could easily recall random paragraphs in newspapers, “120 people killed on a train in India when it derailed” or “178 people burned on an Indian train...” And well, one could see that happening, because with all these people crammed in a car, nobody would be able to get out, and, I just had to stop thinking of that.

Two nice men across from us, 1 above and 1 below, shared their dinner with us, jam and bread and a boiled egg and roti. It had been hot during the day, but at least our compartment kicked the fans on. It never got cold overnight, and in fact when we stopped at the multitude of stations along the way at night, it got hot in here. As it got late, the car got quiet as people tried to doze in their impossibly uncomfortable positions. James and I tried and tried to get comfortable and tried to doze. I came to the conclusion that God didn’t make the human body to sleep sitting up on hard straight-backed Indian train luggage rack 'seats'. Finally James found some combination of our bags to lay on, and we got a little bit of sleep.

TUES Dec 24 I came to around 6 AM having to whiz mightily, but thought I’d hold it till we got off the train in Cochin at 7 AM. We started talking with the nice Man below us who spoke a bit of English, and asked if we were getting close to Cochin, and he kept saying, “Karnataka.” Wait - Karnataka? He seemed to be telling us we were still in the state of Karnataka, which was the state ABOVE Kerala, where our destination of Cochin was… and the realization slowly dawned on us that we were only halfway to Cochin – that we’d get there TOMORROW morning at 7 AM. James and I looked at each other with the stupidest, most shocked and numbed expressions – 24 MORE HOURS on here…!!

What could we do but laugh! How utterly typical of my Indian experiences! God – Christmas Eve in this hot crowded Indian Zoo rolling along a countryside I can’t see! We literally sat, unable to speak for a while – we could only look at each other dumbly and laugh! And stare, and laugh! “Express Superfast train to Cochin” - riiiiight! We were on the LOCAL train to Cochin! No WONDER the train never picked up any speed, ever, it just lumbered along, and it stopped at every bloomin' village on the way. That train ticket seller must still be having a great laugh at our expense. Oh God. What could you do but laugh!

I had been waiting to wee till we got off in Cochin, but seeing as Cochin was still 24 hours away, I decided not to try for a world record. I put my shoes on (you take them off if you’re up top – a curious courtesy and type of respect everyone strictly follows, despite the filth and fights and crowded insanity), and fought my way to the bathroom at the end of the car, stepping on people, crawling over bags, searching for places to place my feet, as every inch of floor space was sat upon or stood upon. I had to wait at the bathroom door, and when my turn came and finally I shoved my way into the loo, just as I squatted, we pulled into a station. There was no window cover, so people could see me squatting. Good grief! I couldn’t just stay there,, with people looking in, so I held it, and fought my way through the people coming on, and climbed back to our perch. When we started rolling again I grabbed my toothbrush and water bottle and shoved my way back to the loo, through and over people, waited in line again, then got in there and took my time! I crawled back to our perch and sat, still in good humor (still stunned?) despite another 24 hrs of this misery ahead. What else could you do?

The Man below us seemed to have taken on the roll of temporarily adopting us foreigners. He gave me an egg and jam and bread for breakfast, and the train puttered slowly onward… It started getting humid, sticky, despite the fans. The Man below told James in his broken English to ask for a sleeper at a train station. I dozed a while, then sat up after I woke up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, just as if I’d been laying and baking under a hot sun. We stopped for ‘lunch’ around 1 PM at a station, and from my perch, leaning down and looking out the window at what the seller had, I pointed out what I wanted, and the Man told me the Indian prices, and paid the money I handed him and collected the change. A woman came through the train car with bananas, but she didn’t create any uproar like the Apple Man did. She handed us a bunch of 8 stubby bananas. The Man reached for them first and scrutinized them. “5 rupees,” he said, and the Banana Woman charged us 5 rupees – the fair Indian price. We had tea several times – someone at the station has tea ready to sell in these little clay cups; you pay 1 or 2 rupees for your little clay cup of tea – hands all up and down the train reaching out for cups of tea, cups of tea being passed to people in the train, and money being passed back to the guys nearest the windows - and you just toss the cup out the window when you're done, either in the station or as you're rolling along – it biodegrades back into the earth it came from.

James fought his way off the train at the next stop and checked at the ticket window for sleepers, but he said it was too late. “Maybe at the next station.” I wasn't even entertaining the thought of a hope for a sleeper, as I didn't want to be crushingly disappointed. When I thought how uncomfortable James and I were crammed onto our sweltering luggage rack, I only had to look at everybody else, people crowded on the floor, some people STANDING the whole way, the Man below us sitting crammed with 4 other men onto the straight-backed bench with no way to change his position or posture for 24+ hours, nobody complaining ... I could survive up here another 18 hours if I absolutely HAD to.

I dozed off after I ate again; in the baking box of madness my fortitude began to wane, and Despair was starting to eat away at me, and I had trouble fighting off images of Christmas Eve at home…what the hell was I doing in India, anyway?? I hated this place. I woke up sweating at a stop, and James was gone. We pulled out of the station, and he didn’t return. He was either on another car or he got left in the station, and to keep total Despair from engulfing me I refused to believe he might’ve missed the train. I would’ve just sat and cried. What would I even do if he had missed the train… get off at the next stop with all our stuff, and wait for him and the next train? Go on another 18 hrs to Cochin in this horrid car by myself, and get off there and wait for him? I couldn’t think about it. He’d be back in this car at the next stop, or the next.

Next stop I waited patiently, refusing to think about anything, and partly in a daze, because it was too hot to do anything else, and James popped his head around the corner, “Let’s go. I got us two sleepers!” Oh HOORAY! I threw my shoes on, jumped down, threw my packs on, and said “Bye!”

We were swallowed in a loud chorus of “BYE!” ‘s, more from happiness our luggage rack was being vacated then from any friendly warmth, except maybe for the Man, who gave us a friendly smile and a wave. James and I jumped off the train and dashed alongside it looking for car S-6, when the train started to pull away, moving towards us. We got to our car and grabbed hold and jumped and swung on, only to find people in our seats. But they said they were getting off at the next stop. I didn't mind standing a while because there was ROOM to stand! And I could stretch my Luggage Rack Butt and legs. James sat in a vacant seat, and I left my pack with him and went and stood in the path by the 2 open doors – people hanging off them and some guys climbing from car to car on the moving train. The wind felt so good, and I felt such a release from the Unreserved zoo car. I wondered if I really would’ve survived another night on there...

Next stop we got our seats, and sat by 2 open windows (!) as the train chugged on past the sunset. Just a coincidence (?) that our windows faced west and played out the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. There was water to reflect and enhance the brilliant colors and small mountains or big hills to vary the shapes. I thought, wow, this is a good sign, this must be one of my Christmas presents. I didn’t write. I just sat and watched the sunset. A brilliant shade of red burned before fading to darkness. Everything was dark, as we had no lights in our car. I just sat, enjoying the drastic improvement in the travel conditions, enjoying the pleasant sound and motion of the train, enjoying the breeze blowing on me in the dark. Maybe Christmas in India isn’t so bad after all...

And back to 2007: Well, here's hoping that any train travel I do in Europe is a bit easier...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Raven Love Ride

Wednesday June 13 2007

It's 95* in Oreana. The dogs are passed out on the porch. The horses have all fallen over in the paddock. While keeping in mind it is not as hot as Malaysia, it is sweltering and I am moving about as fast as the dogs. A nighthawk – they just showed up about 2 weeks ago - is busy looking for bugs, but it's sticking to the shade of the locust trees. It's too hot even to nap. The thought of riding, the thought of doing anything, is unappetizing.

When we go out for a ride, it's not till after 7 PM. It's still warm, but it will cool down a bit as we head out of the Pickett Creek drainage for the Rim Trail for a sunset ride. Jose is always ready for a ride; he's usually the first one to come up and stick his head over the fence looking for his halter (or is it the bucket of oats he'll get while he's being saddled?) Steph takes her new Rushcreek gelding Mac and John rides his black horse, which I've renamed Hoss, after Hoss the Raven.

Instead of the usual route to the Rim Trail, we approach it from the bottom of the mesa, which starts as a thin line of rolling hills, and climbs up onto, and spreads out into, a mesa that eventually runs into the foothills of the Owyhee Front range.

There's a great temporary trail marker where we turn onto this trail: Hoss the Raven and his girlfriend, sitting on a little rock outcrop. They are doing Raven Love things: sitting together, preening each other, rawking and garbling to each other. We figure it's Hoss, because the two ravens sit there unbothered by the close proximity of 3 humans on three horses.

The trail whoops up and down, and we trot and canter up and down these, till Jose gets whiplash – to keep up he starts running down the hill, into the bottom dip and back up – and wants to start bucking. We slow down a bit for me and Jose, and because we want to linger up on top for the sunset, which looks like it will be spectacular, as there are remnant thunderstorm clouds lingering over and around Hayden Peak and War Eagle.

Jose is a bit of a gawker, always looking right and left as we go along the trail, and as we ride along the rim, which gets up to a hundred or two hundred feet above the Hart Creek valley floor, Jose seems to appreciate the view. He gets close to the edge several times and looks over it and down into the basin. We ride by where a hawk nest had for the last few years been used; it had been perched maybe 20 feet below the rim. Now it's tumbled down the slope, but whether it was from a windstorm or rainstorm or disuse, or whether it had even been occupied this year, we don't know. We do see a few hawks on our ride, either red tails or Swainson's. Red tails are always easy to identify when they're flying, because they have the dark shoulder patches, which no other hawks have. These hawks are either too far away, or they blend against the terrain so well that I can't tell if they have these dark patches.

The sun in the west has been hidden behind clouds, but as it bursts out of a hole in the dark clouds low to the horizon, it is an orange blaze hurling fantastic golden light over the golden desert, darkening the deepening blue shadows of the folded golden hills trickling down from the far mesa. We squint as the trail turns directly into the sunset, which blasts off a final yellow fireball before it sinks behind the mountains. We cross the sage flats to the northwest side of the mesa, which follows along Pickett Creek, back towards the house. Jose is looking off this rim too, walking closer to the edge for a better view, down into the drainage where he and his herd hang out.

We get back home just as it's getting close to dark. Austin the dog (picked up in Nevada as an abandoned puppy on Steph and John's Pony Express ride in 2000) comes out to meet us and Quincy barks a greeting from the house, while screech owls hoot along the creek, coyotes howl down the creek, and the rest of the horse herd whinnies and waits by the barn for their returning buddies.

It's cooled down now, time for a late dinner after another great Owyhee ride!

Three Little Ravens

Tuesday June 12 2007

Last year in the spring, 3 little Ravens fell out of their nest along Pickett Creek. Neighbor Linda (now next door to Carol, who's next door to us) found them after a windstorm blew them out of their nest. They were sitting on the ground on the bridge over the creek on her new property. The parents were still trying to feed them, but the little ravens were sweltering in the heat, dehydrated, and in very bad shape. Linda called up Carol next door, who drove over in her black pickup; they bundled up the little ravens, and drove a few miles downstream to Linda's (now old) house. The parent ravens were frantic, watching Carol's truck drive away with their babies, but, without human intervention, it was quite clear the little ravens would have died very soon.

Linda and Carol used eyedroppers to get water down them, and Linda kept them at her house. Carol drove home, and later in the day got back in her pickup to drive into town, and the parent ravens followed her truck all the way down the creek into Oreana – she said it was quite eerie. “How they could tell my black truck from her blue truck, and know the babies had been in mine, was amazing.” They eventually figured out their babies were at Linda's place.

Linda, and her partner Mike, and Carol all pitched in to feed the baby ravens – at first dog food soaked into a mush, and bird food, which is higher in protein, and eventually just about anything, including chicken, and tuna, “the smellier the better.”

At first Linda kept them inside as they needed to be fed several times a day, and she even took them to an endurance ride or two, because the hungry babies needed to be fed constantly. “They were all mouth,” said Carol, “big pink mouths,” which must be their attractant for the parents to put food right in the target – down their throats. Eventually Linda kept them outside in a big cage, till they were able to hop and flap around. By that stage, they were no longer so tame they'd sit in Linda's hands, but they would land on Linda's and Mike's heads.

Linda has a big menagerie of dogs and goats and horses and mules; the ravens were just another part of the family. Eventually, one of the ravens disappeared, and they never saw it again. Later in the summer, Mike and Linda found one drowned in a water trough, a very sad event.

That left Hoss. Hoss the Raven kept hanging around, getting fed, growing up with the farm animals. One day he was gone, and later that day another neighbor further down the creek toward Oreana called, “Linda, I have your Raven!” She said he looked disoriented and was hungry, so she fed him dog food. When Linda showed up with her bowl of treats, she said Hoss was so happy to see her, he followed Linda right to her truck and flew back home with her. He was still so starved when they got home, Linda kept feeding him... and feeding him. “He just kept eating, so I just kept feeding him. I mean, what the heck.” The next day, Hoss was gone, seemingly for good.

That might have been the end of the Picket Creek Raven stories, but months later, Hoss returned. Of course, all Ravens look pretty much alike to human eyes, but this had to be Hoss, because he'd hang out at Linda's place on the fence, or on the goats' backs, like he always did. He wouldn't allow himself to be touched anymore, but he'd hang out much closer than any other raven might have, and he was unbothered by human presence. And, he seemed to have brought a girlfriend with him.

Carol says he's still hanging out in this valley – often it's the two of them. Hoss or both of them will stop by her place early in the mornings and croak and caw a while. She'll also often see a Raven or two when she's out riding, and he'll often come quite close. She's sure it's Hoss, coming to check on her.

The first time I took a horse out riding when I got back here this visit, I saw a raven alight on a hillside. It really looked like he was doing nothing but watching me, so I yelled, “Hi Hoss!” at him. Another time Carol and I were riding, and we saw a raven circling high above. I yelled, “Hi Hoss!” again, and the raven flew down to have a look at us. It might not have been Hoss, because sometimes Ravens can be quite curious, but chances are, it was him, because there aren't that many ravens that hang around this drainage. Once a day or so, I see 2 ravens hanging out in one particular dead tree by our creek. I go out there to right under the tree with my camera, saying, “Hi Hoss!” The two look at me, and go about their raven business, cawing and hollering, preening, ducking from little birds or kestrels that are quite perturbed they are hanging out in the wrong spot.

We humans think we are so smart, that we have everything figured out. We forget that we take and take and take from the planet, things that will never be replaced, and things that just won't continue to sustain us with our steadily growing population – do the simple math. Carol and I have always thought that as soon as we humans destroy ourselves and the planet, the Ravens will inherit the earth. They are the clever ones. They've been out there since the creation of the earth (they are mentioned in the Bible several times; it was Ravens that fed Elijah in the wilderness), and they'll be around long after we've taken everything till there's nothing left for us, and they'll still be having a great time. I can only think that we Pickett Creek humans all have good Raven karma, through Linda's and Carol's good raven deeds, (and through my obsession with Ravens), so who knows, maybe we'll get to come back as Ravens one day...

P.S. The great photos are all from Linda and Mike and/or Carol!

Look of Eagles

Tuesday June 12 2007

Said Carol, as we were standing with our horses on the side of a steep hill in the middle of the Owyhee high desert foothills, “Some people say their Arabians have the Look of Eagles. We take our Arabians to look for eagles.” We were accompanying Karen again on another golden eagle quest on horseback. A colleague of Karen's observed this nest last week, and saw one baby on the nest, and it was possible there was another baby. It's about time for the babies to fledge – leave the nest – so they are being monitored.

We'd headed out northwest from Murphy, Idaho, along jeep roads and washes, winding between little hills and little mountains with cliff faces. As expected the eagle pair in this territory has several alternate nests; at least two of the nests are smack in the middle of heavily trafficked motorcycle and ATV trails. We went during the week for this reason – it would be impossible to get to on horseback for running into too many vehicles, and, we certainly didn't need attention called to the eagles' nest what with all the mechanical commotion they live above anyway. We only saw 3 motorcycle riders – just as we turned off a road to cross-country – but boy oh boy did we encounter plenty of their remains: whoop-de-doos. Some places they were awful. Karen posed the question – what do you do? Close certain sections? Come and plow them flat? The bike and ATV riders don't like them either, so they make new parallel trails, which eventually become whoop-de-doos. They're hell on horses, and if you try to create a horse trail, the bikes find those too because they're nice and smooth – for a while.

As soon as the cliff with the nest came into view, it was obvious it was or had been occupied this season – lots of whitewash. The nest – which turned out to be two nests, one right above the other, like a penthouse condo with an upstairs balcony – blended right into the cliff, and it was hard to see without binoculars unless you were really paying attention, which hopefully most of the motorbikers aren't. However, this site as been monitored for years, so the eagles have obviously adapted to the environment. We stopped across a draw, looking up at an angle at the nest – we couldn't get high enough to look into or look evenly at it. Even with binoculars, the nest was naturally well camouflaged.

Karen brought her spotting scope and set that up; she concentrated on the lower nest that had “decoration” on it - fresh sage greenery layered on top, which is a good sign of occupation. It may have something to do with courtship rituals, also. As Karen looked at the nest, she said, “I see a brown thing, but I can't tell if it's a bird, or a rock behind the nest on the cliff. I don't think it's dark enough for a baby eagle.” I looked in the scope, and wasn't sure either, “Looks more like a rock to me.” We decided to climb higher on the hillside we were on, leading our horses, trying a little different angle and a bit more height. Karen set up the scope and looked again, sat there a while, waited, and “Wait! I think it IS an eagle! I think I saw its eyelid move! But then, if you look at a nest long enough you kind of will what you want to see and your imagination takes over.”

I took my turn at the scope again, and I was looking at the same brown rock from a different angle... but wait, “I think I see feathers! Wing feathers, to the left.” “Yes!” “And that's its head, to the right. Yes – it blinked!! It IS an eagle!” Carol took her turn, “Yeah! I saw it blink!”

I asked if it could have been an adult, but Karen said no, an adult would not have been sitting flat on the nest like that. “The adults are around though, they've seen us by now, and have disappeared.” Usually, adult golden eagles will stay away from their nest when people are obviously around. Karen said that the nests are considered successful when the young reach 52 days of age, which is 80% of the average age that they leave the nest, and there are different criteria used to determine how old they are, if the exact date of egg-laying hasn't been observed. Since we didn't get a good look at this young one, that couldn't be determined right now.

We took turns looking at the nest, hoping the baby eagle would get up and stretch and flap its wings, or at least shake a tail feather or two, but it didn't do anything. While waiting, Carol's mare and Karen's gelding contentedly grazed on whatever they could find, like scrubby sage bushes, tiny roots, but Jose just stood waiting. He's always on the clock when we're eagle hunting. Actually he appeared to be dozing off most of the time. I think he can sleep anywhere.

We gave it a few more looks, then packed up to leave. We took a different route home, at first looking at the map, following a wash and connecting up with a road, then going by instinct. We came across a couple of springs on the way home, nice hidden little mini-valleys that must look like bright green stripes on the brown land from a soaring eagle eye. We also saw a few jackrabbits that would keep baby eagles well-fed.

It was quite warm when we got back home from our 12-mile jaunt into eagle territory. This time it was a successful foray – add golden eagle to the list of cool species I've gotten to see here this visit!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rattlesnake Ride

Saturday June 9 2007

Steph and John are leaving tomorrow for Japan. Japan is putting on their first 100 mile ride, and Steph and John have been advisors for the venture. Despite them still having to pack, and take care of the never ending last minute stuff, we still had time, or made time, for a nice 15-mile loop ride, over to and up Hart Creek. The Raven (Two) went along... time to get him back into the saddle (bag)!

It was a nice breezy evening, keeping hot temperatures at bay, and we clipped right along, cross-countrying up and down hills to get us onto the trail leading to the Hart Creek valley. Jose followed right along behind big striding Rushcreek Mac and Hoss, and we kept up a quick pace for quite a while, on coliche roads, in sandy washes, weaving through sagebrush on old cattle trails. Hart Creek still had a bit of water running in it, and the immediate area next to the creek was green green green, with grass, healthy sagebrush, and big locus trees. At some places, especially where we had to bull our way through willows, it looked like we were riding in a mini-jungle. The horses stopped to grab some grass, especially Mac, who probably hadn't laid eyes on such good grass since he left Nebraska, unless you count the other day when he either hopped the fence or crawled through it and helped himself to the grass in the front yard. Floods in this area two years ago knocked out Steph and John's bridge, and here in Hart Creek you could see where some obviously pretty high and strong water carved a big channel right out of the hillside that was taller than us on our horses. Swallows love the overhanging blocky clay walls left behind for their round mud nests. The creek narrows at one spot with hills on one side, and a cave on the other. That's on private property, so we didn't go snooping around, but some lucky soul is building a little cabin back there.

We rode up away from the creek onto a little flat, and came to a gate where John got off to open it, and I got off to scratch Jose's ears, which had filled up with gnats that just seemed to hatch today, particularly in Hart Creek-bed. (When we got home, they were there too!) Steph was leaning over on Mac rubbing his neck, telling him what a good horse he is. She just loves him, he moves wonderfully, is very forward, but very light – the cowboys at Rushcreek Ranch taught him to respond to seat and legs very nicely. He does wander off by himself away from the herd at times, though, as if he's looking for something – like Nebraska maybe? I think that when we take him out for endurance trail rides, he's thinking, “Well? We keep going, and going, and going, but we never find the cattle!”

John got back on Hoss, and we moved onto the road. Jose and I were behind Mac, when suddenly, out from under Mac's legs was...

“SH**!” I booted Jose to the side, and we just avoided walking over the same rattlesnake that Mac had obliviously walked over! John swerved out of its way in the other direction, and we all stopped and turned around to watch the maybe 18” rattler – not a big one - continue slithering off the road and into a little sagebrush. I did have the instinctive urge to follow it – I always want to touch wild things – but whoa! Stopped that thought right away. They can only strike a distance of about 2/3 their body size, but I don't need to test that theory, and I've touched enough bull snakes around here to fullfill my quota of snake groping.

He never did rattle – I think maybe he was as startled as we were, and like us, he didn't realize what had happened until after it had happened. Rattlesnakes are fairly deaf, but they sense vibrations very well; maybe since we'd been standing around a while and had just stepped onto the soft road, and he'd been on the move somewhere, we were all a big surprise.


We left the rattlesnake behind and continued on the road which swung back around to Hart Creek by where an old homestead used to be, and we kept following the drainage up to where cliffs rise up on either side to squeeze the creek. Jose and the Raven had a little photo session here. From here we left the creek and headed in the direction of home, only we had to turn away from it again, to climb to the top of the mesa, to get home. Hoss hadn't been this way before, but his internal equine compass was working very well, and he was quite certain we were going the wrong way. John had to do some convincing to get him going the wrong direction, and up a steep climb to boot! Jose followed ever- agreeably behind, while Mac hung back, grabbing abundant grass. He might have just liked to stay there and eat, then find his way back to Nebraska, and I bet you HIS internal equine compass was working just fine, and he'd have found his way there eventually.

But we climbed up this steep ridge, which got narrower the higher we got. When we reached the top, the Owyhee Front range was once again ahead of us (follow Hart Creek up – or Bates Creek the next big drainage over – and they will take you right into the mountains), and to our side and behind us spread the whole Hart Creek drainage, with a good view down to the Snake River plain. The sunset had vanished behind gray and blue storm skies, which layered the distant mountains and mesas to the north in special shades of blue and purple. Any different time of day, any different kind of cloud cover, gives you different colors out here, and not one combination I've seen has not been new and beautiful. And every time, the beauty just about knocks me off my horse - wow, what a magnificent place I get to ride in.

Hoss was happy when we finally turned in the correct direction towards home, and Jose took the lead on the way back. We were trotting down the final road stretch to home, when some sort of commotion took place in a bush to our right. Jose and I thought it was a rabbit, and we'd already passed it so it was no big deal, but Hoss, just behind us, apparently thought it was a rattlesnake, because he leaped sideways and forward, scaring Jose, who bolted forward. Steph, behind both of us, thought it sounded like hissing.

Either way, that's plenty of rattlesnakes for me, don't need to see anymore of those.

And either way, the Raven had fun in his return to the saddle!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Raven Returns! (Sort Of)

Saturday June 9 2007

Wait – what's this!? Return of The Raven in Oreana??

Well, it's not the exact same Raven (I can tell), but it's another Raven... The Raven Two perhaps?

As to the original Raven, I can't count the condolences I received after the crushing disappearance of it in Brisbane (humorous, and serious, condolences, I think), and then there was the help I was offered by numerous people in searching for the lost Raven and/or finding a replacement Raven, (including one endurance rider who stopped at the place I originally bought the first Raven from 8 or 9 years ago, enlisted the help of the manager there, and left his credit card in case that guy found one for me later), and an Australian offer to try to sew me another one.

I recently wrote the company Folkmanis who used to make the Raven puppet, and told them of the Raven's adventures and misadventures. I knew they hadn't made this Raven for 8 or 9 years, but besides sharing a story with them I figured they'd enjoy, I also asked on the off chance there might still be a spare Raven puppet hanging out in the attic or something. The kind marketing director there suggested I keep an eye on ebay – which I'd done from time to time – and since I hadn't checked in a while, I looked again – and there, right then, was another Raven! I was all over that bidding. Meanwhile, another gal from Folkmanis – named Raven, of course – offered to send me HER Raven that she'd had sitting on her desk for many years.

Well, the replacement Raven off ebay arrived this week, and it took no time in getting back into the groove of things. He met the horses – Jose sniffed him on the hay pile, then grabbed him in his mouth, scared himself, backed up with it still in his mouth, kept scaring himself backwards, and finally let the Raven go and wheeled away. The Raven then helped Steph garden, joined us for dinner, and is now hanging out in the suitcase getting packed to leave for Europe next week, for the next three months. THIS TIME, a closer eye will be kept on the Raven II (or Raven Due for Italy, or Raven Deux for France) - it will have a Lost and Found Reward tag attached, in case something bizarre happens again. Maybe I should just wear it on a chain around my neck. Sure, it would be a big Bohemian necklace, but it wouldn't disappear so easily again.

And no, it is not the Exact Same Raven, but I think it will be a decent replacement. Surely I don't need to start over the Raven's endurance miles, do I? It might even be joined by other Ravens at some point... maybe the Kiwi or Kookaburra that jumped in my bag from New Zealand and Australia... that remains to be seen. Raven Fans, stay tuned! Non-Raven fans, well, just get used to it – he's back!