Friday, October 26, 2012

An Idyllic Walk In The Bronx: Old Croton Aqueduct

I guess you might say I'm obsessed with canals and similar  type waterways. Whether it's the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal that runs for 185 miles from Georgetown in DC to Cumberland, Maryland or the Kiel Canal in Germany, canals are perfect for the bikeable or walkable paths that run alongside these waterways. But, imagine my surprise when, as a native New Yorker, I just found out that there's a 40-some-mile-long aqueduct that wanders from Central Park to Westchester. But I probably would have still been unaware were it not for Open House New York. 
Open House New York is an annual event held one weekend in September with private residences, galleries and other (often architecturally-interesting) buildings opening their doors for culturally-focused activities. Because of my waterway fascination and tree hugging nature, I signed up for a walk along the Old Croton Aqueduct with guides from the Friends of the Old  Croton Aqueduct that's dedicated to preserving the Aqueduct.

Taking the #4 Lexington line subway to near the end of the line, I meet the group of 15 across from Lehman College where I pondered where this aqueduct was going to appear. The Bronx hardly sounded like it would be the source of an idyllic jaunt. Our two guides, Steve and Charlotte, warn us that, because we would be coursing south through the Bronx, if we were expecting sylvan glades we would be sorely disappointed. (The treks that head north through Westchester follow the scenic Hudson River Valley.) Interestingly, many trailheads are easily accessed by taking Metro North to, for example, Hastings-on-the-Hudson or Dobbs Ferry stations.

But what this Bronx section lacks in verdancy it's abundant in history, both social and literary. Coincidentally on this the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, we will be walking in his footsteps. 

We learn that 10% of New York City's water comes from the Croton Watershed, which was the source of the city's first clean water supply back in 1842 when it first opened. We take clean water for granted but, before that time, New Yorkers got their water from wells which became contaminated and led to plenty of disease outbreaks, including typhoid. The aqueduct was able to deliver 50,000 gallons of water a day.
The entire aqueduct, however, is invisible to us, as it runs just five to six feet below the sidewalk along Goulden Avenue. It's said that 99 million bricks were used in the construction of the tunnel that carried water. (It's referred to as the Old Croton Aqueduct because the new one went onine in 1910 and the original ceased operation in 1955.) Curious factoids abound where this aqueduct is concerned, including that it was built by a self-taught engineer. The aqueduct, a marvel of construction, also owes its existence to the Romans who also build these structures to be gravity fed. 

 Passing drab apartments, whitewashed churches and ramshackle garages, we spot  the turret of the Kings Bridge Armory that dates back to 1913. (It was the largest indoor drill hall in the world.) Curiously, what some believe resembles a French chateau has been abandoned for decades. A mere quarter of a mile on Kingsbridge Road is where Poe settled, wrote some of his most loved works, including the Cask of Amandillado, and walked the same path we're following south to the High Bridge.
The most surprisingly lush section of the route is along Aqueduct Avenue where embankments (reflecting the topography of the aqueduct) fall away to either side of our path that's now dotted with shade trees. The Poe Cottage is a short detour away as is the little-visited St. James Church where elaborate Tiffany stained glass windows make it well worth the visit.

Near chaotic Fordham Road, we curve around to an adjacent pedestrian path, a wall of native field stone lining the way. Prominent tree roots penetrate the stone wall and even dig down to the aqueduct's roof, puncturing it and, saysCharlotte , will eventually destroy it. 
Steve stops to show us a photo of Phineas Gage, one of the builders of the aqueduct, who survived after being impaled through the skull with an iron rod – the tragic result of digging the canal by hand, using black gunpowder instead of dynamite. (A handful of sand was supposed to prevent a spark after using the iron tapping rod.)

We wander into Aqueduct Lands Playground that's designed – as is the nearby Morgan Playground –  to reflect the aqueduct itself, including the towns along the way, their names – Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Ossining, Hastings, etched on brick that rims a water channel. As we continue heading south, we pass the Gould Memorial Library, renowned for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. (The scenic views of the Harlem River from this vantage point also can't be beat.)

As we cross Tremont Avenue and continue on University Avenue, the walk dramatically loses its appeal with nothing but crowded sidewalks and drab storefronts. But, we press on to the highlight of the journey, the High Bridge that carried water across the Harlem River. From there, water was first pumped up to the elegant circa 19th century stone tower that dominates the skyline and then gravity took over to supply Manhattan. Decades ago, people would stroll this the oldest bridge in New York City. We gather in petite High Bridge Park and peak through a crack in the imposing chained door to see that the bridge surface is now overgrown with weeds. It's been long closed but the hope is that it will be restored and reopened as a cycling and pedestrian way between the Bronx and Manhattan. This is definitely a path I'd like to tackle.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Travel Tips E-Book

I think most of us would agree that surprises are great, just not unpleasant ones. And that's especially the case when traveling. When I'm on the road, whether it's to a domestic destination or a far-flung land, I would rather avoid getting ill, becoming stranded in an airport, having my hotel broken into, losing my laptop and so forth. You get the idea.

That's why I decided to write a savvy travel tips e-book where the title says it all: The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel. I've divided the book up into seven useful sections based on major travel topics: savvy packing, airports and planes, other transportation (cars, trains and boats), health and safety, accommodations, recommended gear and products, and insurance and money issues. Each chapter has a quirky image, like the one on the cover, that introduces that section. (I'm all about quirky, after all.)

The idea is that even someone who has logged thousands of frequent flyer miles will find something (or more than one thing) they didn't know that can help them save money, time and their sanity. The tips -- there are more than 200 of them -- come from my personal travel experiences, my background in the health and medical field, as well as my use of various products and gadgets that I adore.

In The Travel Authority, you'll find that I provide links to apps that can save the day when your plane is delayed, for example, as well as companies, such as Adventure Cycling, that can take the hassle out of traveling with your bicycle, and products, like the SteriPen, that I take with me on many a trip to prevent traveler's diarrhea from contaminated water. (It's super small, pen-sized.) You'll find recommendations on how to avoid pickpockets -- with a very cool pair of pants --  as well as an item of clothing -- the Versalette -- that transforms into twenty different garments.

I wrote this book for every kind of traveler, no matter your budget or style. If you're a business traveler or you're on a budget, if you prefer luxury travel or you're more comfortable on the Appalachian Trail, you'll find tips for you. That's because I travel in all manner of different ways, staying at hostels and five-star hotels; I'm often on business but I also go on long-distance hiking, bicycling and Nordic skiing trips.

The Travel Authority is being sold for the Kindle, Nook and the iPad as well as a downloadable PDF from my blog here. (You'll find it on the upper right with the cover prominently displayed.) The e-book is just $2.99. And to make your life even more travel savvy, certain companies mentioned in this book are offering discounts to anyone who buys the book. Most are still getting on board at this time, but you can email me for more information on this once you've purchased the book. (I can provide you with discount codes.)

I hope you enjoy reading it and I hope it makes your next journey worry-free.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Teaching English In Spain

What could I possibly be doing in a stone-made hamlet in Spain where there's no shopping, no cars, no air conditioning and little in the way of WiFi? Almost every summer I travel to the Soria province to teach conversational English to Spanish business men and women and sometimes college students. The setting is idyllic, the distractions are few and each day offers so many possibilities in terms of making a difference in the lives of others.

I've written about this program in the hamlet of Valdelavilla before. It's definitely not for everyone. You have to enjoy almost non-stop conversation from breakfast to sometimes way into the night as conversations move from the dinner table to the one laid-back bar. There's little down time. Some volunteers find it difficult to come up with entertaining topics that keep everyone engaged. Others get burned out with the constant interactions. Since I have a background as a teacher and I thrive on meeting new people and engaging them in all manner of conversations, whether political, social or cultural, I'm in my element in this hamlet.

But, recently I've come upon a new conversation starter: my quirky line of JCreatures™ t-shirts. Each t-shirt has a cartoon image that I designed, which reflects a different emotion or state of being, like emoticons, of sorts. It's hard to look at one and not wonder what it means.

Recently, I guest blogged for the PhotoFly Travel Club on teaching English in Valdelavilla and how I use my JCreatures™  t-shirts (such as those below) to promote conversation while also boosting camaraderie and providing a few laughs.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Gear Review: A Transformative Garment - The Versalette

What if I told you (women) that you could pack one piece of fabric (tube-shaped) that could replace 20 items in your luggage?  Oh, and what if I sweetened up the deal by saying that everything about it would be  sustainable? Pretty fantastical, huh? But that's what the Versalette does. Because of an ingenious design that depends on buttons and draw strings, my little charcoal toned fabric acts as a scarf (actually two types of scarves), hood, short skirt, long skirt, strapless dress, halter dress, tunic (several types), a poncho (more here, too), a shawl and even a little purse.

Check out the LookBook and then review this video which shows how it can easily convert from one garment to the next. You can see how others are wearing the Versalette on their tumblr page.

And this is how I wore the Versalette:

Anyone who's met me knows I've very skinny. But, the Versalette can flatter any woman, no matter her shape. In fact, when my Versalette arrived in the mail in a little biodegradable pouch, it came with visual instructions for different body shapes. (I'm considered the Pencil and, as you can see above, I wore it as a short skirt, halter dress with the drawstrings pulled, and a strapless dress with black leggings.) At first, I was worried that my body might float in this tube-shaped garment. But, if you accent it with a flattering belt, scarf, or jacket, even if you are a fellow Pencil, you'll find looks that work well for you. In addition, it's key to really cinch the drawstrings properly (as per the directions) and then tuck in the bow.  Because there are wooden buttons, you have to follow the directions as to when you need to open the button holes and use the arm openings, and when to keep them unbuttoned. The garment also comes with two open pockets, which is handy for keeping a notebook and pen when you're traveling.

It might take some people a bit of time to read and re-read the instructions, follow along with the video and try out the different looks before you're able to make quick transformations and before you feel comfortable with those looks that work best for your body shape.

As far as the sustainability goes, I'm so happy that the creators, Shannon Whitehead and Kristin Glenn, decided that everything should be Made in the U.S.A. The fabric is made in North Carolina of recycled plastic bottles and recycled cotton scraps; the buttons are produced in Brooklyn, the drawstrings are dyed in Raleigh, North Carolina, and even the labels are embroidered in Austin, Texas.

Whenever I'm at the airport and I see people weighed down by their luggage, it makes me sad. There just is no need to carry so many articles of clothing. In fact, I'd bet that you didn't really wear all those clothes you brought on your last trip. Now, with the Versalette, you have no reason to pack several shirts, several skirts, several scarves. Just pack one (or two) of these. (They come in different colors, including sage, cherry and indigo, depending on what's in stock. (It costs $80.)

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