It’s been a while. I know the hoards of people who avidly read our blog (that’s both Steve’s and my brother (thanks)) will be relieved to see another instalment of the Gav and Schubie diary. There’s no excuse really for not keeping it up. Lindsey will say that as she did the last post, it’s entirely my fault and she’s probably right. I will say that we’ve been extremely busy but when you look at the downtime we’ve had while travelling, ‘busy’ just doesn’t cut it.
Anyway, we finished out the school year with no major problems. I will say that we and everyone else at school were definitely ready for a break. This is odd as we only arrived in January but the reality is that with half the staff back in their home countries and many students also virtual, it was a pretty stressful time. It was a relief to have some time off. We flew back to London with no issues in the aiport at all which was quite surreal as the airport had only recently re-opened. There were no Covid requirements to get to the UK and a we were flying all the way with one airline, they knew the deal. It felt like we were cheating somehow.
We got back to London and stayed a few days in my brother’s flat which was super handy. The weather was glorious so we were full of the joys of London and the luxury of being able to buy stuff, drink the water and have a constant supply of electricity. London seemed very much alive and Covid free with the pubs overflowing and a general good feeling.
After a few days we hired a car which turned out to be pumpkin orange. The car hirer was desperate to sell us more car insurance and amusingly asked us if we knew what the roads were like in Devon! We spent about 2 weeks in Devon doing all our usual things like going to local pubs, going on all the local walks and having beach barbeques with my brother, Simon and his partner Paula. The only bad thing about Devon is not having Nell. It really doesn’t feel right without her. The whole time we were in the UK I was avidly bird watching as this year will be a multiple country year allowing me to hopefully get a good ‘year’ list and maybe even go for my record set in 2018 (266 species). After that we drove back to London for another few days before the next leg of our epic summer trip – this time to Washington D.C.!
‘Why Washington’, I hear you ask, ‘Doesn’t Lindsey’s family live in Colorado?’ Yes, they do, but they had also planned a hiking trip for us in Shenandoah National park which is in Virginia, not far from Washington. This meant that the ‘logical’ thing to do was three round trips. Yangon – London, London – Washington D.C., Washington D.C. – Denver and back again. We spent three days in Washington which was a city break I never imagined we would do but was excellent.
Two points of clarification. I always thought the ‘Smithsonian Museum’ was just one big museum. It’s not. There are lots of Smithsonian museums which come from one major donation by a Brit (you’re welcome) scientist. I just read that the act that signed the Smithsonian Institution into law was by the President James K. Polk (who’s ever heard of him?). Secondly, the National Mall, which is where all the museums are, is that big green space leading up to the Washington monument (which is that big obelisk thing, which (fun fact) was the largest structure in the world when it was built) and does NOT have a mall. This was much to the disappointment of Lindsey’s 8th Grade self when she went on a school trip there and was given some free time.
Before I get to museums I should say that we arrived on July 4th, Independence Day. I thought this was pushing our luck but it turned out to be great. If the Brits were doing a big fireworks display in the middle of summer at a massive park, there would be beer for sale everywhere and by the time the fireworks started everyone would be drunk. There were some places you could buy beer but not too many and you had to stay in limited spaces to drink said beer. This meant the atmosphere during the actual fireworks was really nice with lots of families enjoying the show – good job America.
The museums were all free and unlike in the UK we couldn’t see any place for donations. They were so good in the main, that I would have happily donated money had there been an option to do that – again great job America. The first one we went to and the only one we had to book tickets for (no cost) was the holocaust museum. The museum took you on a journey giving you the history of the holocaust from before Hitler came into power until the end of the war. The exhibits and explanations were excellent. In addition, they did not pull their punches when it came to criticising the US for not doing more to help. One surprising story I remember was a boat (the SS St. Louis) with less than 1,000 Jewish people on board heading for a safe haven in Cuba. The boat was denied entry in Cuba and then slowly went up the East coast of America begging for a port. They were denied by the Americans and had to go back to Europe eventually landing in Belgium. Of the 900 or so people on board, 250 were subsequently killed during the war.
More uplifting was the Natural History Museum which had the added bonus for me of a collection of stuffed birds representing all the birds that have ever been identified in Washington D.C.. (The first bird we saw in Washington was a cardinal which was the only time we saw one the whole time we were there – I took that as a good omen). The dinosaur room was simply fantastic. If you told a Middle School student who had no previous knowledge of dinosaurs or evolution to spend half a day there reading everything they had to offer they would come away with excellent knowledge.
We also had flying visits to the historical and art museums which were pretty good but were really looking forward to the museum about American Indians. First off, I have to say that I don’t like that term and the museum is straight up called ‘The National Museum of the American Indian’. When we were in Alaska the only term the guides used was First Nation People which I prefer. This was an odd experience for me and I came away with the feeling that America has not in any way come to terms with its relationship or history with First Nation people. There were videos of people talking about sports teams and their icons saying that it’s basically OK and the people where these icons come from are fine with it. I am simplifying massively and they did have a very good exhibit talking about the ‘Trail of Tears’ which is when America expelled First Nation people from the East of America and forced them to go West with basically no compensation. There was also an exhibit about Pocahontas which is someone I knew nothing about despite the Disney cartoon hype. Stunningly she died at the age of only 21. Unlike the other museums, you couldn’t come away with a working knowledge of First Nation history and culture, even if you read everything. I think America has a long way to go with this subject and I don’t envy them the journey. Nevertheless, I feel it must be taken.
Now on to Colorado where we spent about 10 days with Lindsey’s family at their home in Fort Collins. This was great for me as I got to spend some serious time birding in a place I haven’t done any birding in before. On one such excursion I met a woman with a large cat on a lead. It was about twice the size of a domestic cat, sandy in colour with some spots. I said to the lady, ‘wow, what have you get there’. Without cracking a smile she said – ‘it’s a cat’ and walked on. I did eventually discover that it was in fact a Savannah Cat and I guess she didn’t want to get into the ‘why have you got a wild cat on a lead’ discussion – fair enough.
On a nearby hike we saw a man carrying a gun in a holster. He was clearly a Grandfather to the young boy that was accompanying him and seemed like a nice guy. Later on Larry, Lindsey’s father, took me to a great store that basically sold everything. There was a ‘hunting’ section where you could buy a number of automatic rifles and pistols. Larry pointed out to the nice young sales assistant that I was a Brit and had never seen a gun shop before to which the young man asked me if I’d ever held a gun. I said no and he replied, ‘we can change that right now’. I’m sorry America, you definitely get minus points on this subject.
Now back to Virginia for our hike in Shenandoah National Park. This is the only kind of hiking that Lindsey and I will do. It’s where you have a guide so you can’t get lost and where someone magically transports all your stuff to the next place you’re staying. That place is nice and you have your own bathroom. If it ticks all those boxes we’ll consider it. Fortunately, for us, the group and guides were all pretty nice with no obvious crazies. There was an oddly high percentage of teachers from New Jersey. In fact, I was probably the ‘crazy’ of the group as I carried my camera around with me everywhere including dinner so as not to miss out on anything photo worthy (but mainly birds).
We hiked for 4 days staying three nights in the park. One day was fairly steep down to a waterfall and back up with the bonus of seeing two snakes at the bottom. Other than that the hikes were fairly easy going and were about 8 miles a day. The birding highlight for me was seeing a Barred Owl during the day and getting great photographs and the photographic highlight is a photo I got of a lizard among some mushrooms. I actually remembered to change the settings of the camera to improve the shot which is something I rarely do as I’m usually too excited when I see an interesting subject.
After that part of the trip we said goodbye to Lindsey’s parents and flew back to London for a one day stop before finally flying back to Yangon via Kuala Lumpur. The journey back did have some Covid restrictions and all manor of Myanmar requirements. We were clearly the only ones on our flight going to Myanmar and amusingly, the check-in agent said to us, ‘What do YOU think you need for Myanmar?’ We knew what we needed, showed them and they waived us through with no problems!
That’s all for now. I’ll leave Lindsey to fill in the many gaps I am no doubt missing. Here’s a gallery with some other shots (click on an image for the full view).