Museum Hack and 5 Reasons DC’s National Gallery of Art is the ‘Best Museum in the Entire Country’

Assassinations, forgeries, illicit affairs–of both the straight and not-straight variety—Disney’s “Little Mermaid conspiracy theories and shark attacks. If any of these things interest you (and, let’s be honest: ALL of these should absolutely interest you), then you need to go on a Museum Hack “Un-Highlights” tour of the National Gallery of Art the next time you’re in D.C.

Museum Hack
Museum Hack’s motto

Museum Hack is a company that host hundreds of tours at museums in cities across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But, as the name suggests, this company is out to hack the usual generic museum tour and make you fall in love with museums. The best part is that they do it in the sneakiest way: By employing a fun, irreverent, renegade group of museum lovers/tour guides to tell you all the juiciest stories behind those staid, stagnant pieces of art work.

Hannah was my excellent and entertaining guide during my two-hour tour of the National Gallery of Art, which she definitively declared (on more than one occasion) as the best museum in the entire country.

Museum Hack Hannah
Museum Hack Hannah

By the end, I think she had me and my fellow newly-initiated art lovers (Chris, Michele and teenager Ben–all from California) completely convinced and ready to argue the fact with anyone who disagreed.

Here are 5 of Hannah’s most compelling reasons.

1) Because it was built on the site of a presidential assassination

And surprisingly, not too many museums can say that! The National Gallery of Art occupies the former location of the Baltimore & Potomac Railway train station. It was here, in July 1881 that President James Garfield—seeking to escaping D.C.’s oppressive summer heat with a little lobster-roll-filled vacay in New England–was shot by an assassin on the station platform. The nation’s 20th president then lingered for 11 weeks before finally dying in a most gruesome and puss-filled fashion. Then some other stuff happened and the National Gallery of Art was built and opened in 1941.

2) “Museum sugar daddy” aka Andrew Mellon aka Hannah’s main man.

Listen, we wouldn’t even have a museum to hack if it wasn’t for ol’Mr. Mellon. Man, it is good to be rich. And if you’re going to be rich, you’ve got to find a way to spend that cash, preferably in a manner that will give you some major street cred, or a lasting legacy of beneficence. Mellon was, of course, a well-travelled man, and when he saw London’s National Gallery and realized that America didn’t really have anything equivalent to a national art collection in the United States, he said, “Let’s do this.”

3) The National Gallery holds the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on public view in the Americas.

Just let that sink in for a minute, because I had to when I heard it.

Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci

What is widely considered the finest example of a Da Vinci painting—the double-sided “Ginevra de’Benci” —was acquired by the National Gallery after a protracted MMA-style museum-fight throw down with a ton of other museums, most notably, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the odd and protracted negotiations with the Princely House of Lichtenstein, the Alisa Mellon Bruce Foundation (yes, those art-loving Mellons came to the rescue again), paid $5 million—a record in 1967—to bring Da Vinci’s first portrait and first work done exclusively in oil to D.C. Interesting side note: the $5 million supposedly went to pay off the gambling debts of the Prince of Lichtenstein. And the Met was left without a Da Vinci, which then led them to say all kinds of mean things about the painting in the New York Times. Talk about sore losers.

4) An amazing collection of Impressionist and French art (including a fake Van Gogh)

American banker and patron of the arts Chester Dale liked to play games. His primary source of fun was to lend out pieces of his amazing collection of French paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which he referred to as his “children”) to various museums throughout the country and then recall them at a moment’s notice when he missed them. No one dared say no because they were all hoping for the big prize—an endowment of his collection when he passed on to the great bank in the sky.

The National Gallery won, becoming the recipient of over 240 paintings, including a fake Van Gogh self-portrait that Dale apparently knew was a fake, but kept on the DL, saying, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a Van Gogh.”

Fake Van Gogh
Fake Van Gogh

5) It holds the largest collection of Edgar Degas sculptures in the world (again, thanks Mellons!)

This time it was Paul Mellon who had the good sense to snap up most of the collection when it became available at a New York exhibit in 1955 for the insanely low price of $400,000. The National Gallery owns 52 of the surviving 69 sculptures Degas created in his lifetime, including the original “Little Dancer” sculpture. You’ll see bronze copies of the “Little Dancer” at museums around the world, but the National Gallery has the original beeswax and found objects sculpture which features real human hair and tulle.

Little Dancer at the National Gallery of Art

So that’s 5 reasons, but honestly, Hannah gave us a ton more. For example, we got to participate in a tableaux vivant, which is a live recreation of a work of art. Ours involved a painting of London Mayor Sir Brook Watson, who lost a leg in a shark attack and then convinced artist John Singleton Copley to paint a recreation of the whole shark fight/rescue. I don’t know what the tableaux vivants at the other Museum Hack tours involve, but ours has to rank up there as pretty badass.

Museum Hack tableaux vivant
Our Copley reenactment. I’m using my purse as shark jaws (I was the shark, in case that isn’t clear).

And I didn’t even get to the story about the lesbian Queen of Sweden who abdicated her Lutheran throne to become Catholic, thereby earning her apartments at the Vatican where she proceeded to hang the portrait of her former “bedfellow” Countess Ebba Sparre in her room at the Vatican. Tsk, tsk, you naughty minx.

Or the painting of Guiliano de’Medici who was killed during Easter mass in the Florence Cathedral in front of about 10,000 worshippers, which is recreated in the “Assassin’s Creed” video game.

Or the Van Dyck painting of Queen Henrietta and her dwarf, the very interesting and resilient Sir Jeffrey Hudson.

Or the super swaggish, Beyonce-posing Andries Stilte (and his modern day contemporaries brought to us by Kehinde Wiley).

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Making it rain (sort of) in the National Gallery’s Stuart room.

We also played games like “Find Ginevra a New Man” and “Match the Emoji to the Painting” and “Pose Like a French Statue.” Those are not official game titles, but you get the idea. Plus there was some elicit chocolate sneaking, and pictures and prizes at the end.

Seriously, I don’t know if I’ll ever look at a museum tour the same way again.

Museum Hack provided me with this tour free of charge. The opinions expressed here are my own, because, if you know me, you know I freely give my opinions. 

 

 

 

An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.

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The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.

All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”

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Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

The Lay of the Land

Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.

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Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).

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At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.

What’s the Problem, Poe?

As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.

This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?

Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”

Sri Lanka wedding
A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

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No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

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Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

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And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

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A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

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A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

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Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

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Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

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Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

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Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

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Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

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Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

Eight Reasons We Need a Real Housewives of the Olympic Village

The Olympics are on and they are totally messing with my Bravo viewing.

I’m not a fan of the Olympics and not just because of the TV viewing disruption. I just think in this day and age, when there are so many other platforms and international competitions and accompanying viewing options for all of your favorite sports (all of which occur without waiting four years in between), the Olympics have sort of lost their shine.

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If I was into gymnastics and trampoline (that’s a sport!?), maybe I’d feel differently. But since I can literally find even table tennis or rugby on TV in just about every part of the world, I don’t feel the need to tune into the Olympics.

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Trampoline: an Olympic sport. I shit you not.

Also, it seems like it’s a total shit show for the host country every single time. A financial disaster, a PR nightmare and little or no return for a lot of effort.

My opinion, however, is a minority opinion. Clearly. You can tell by the all-out, wall-to-wall coverage blitzkrieg NBC is putting on to cover every single second of the games. Since NBC is already live streaming it everywhere, including your phone and OnDemand, I really don’t understand why they have to disrupt the entirety of the Real Housewives franchise.

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Table tennis: Also an Olympic sport. Again, not kidding.

Now, I have to wait two weeks to see RHNJ’s Jackie call Teresa a crook to her face (the ONLY thing even remotely interesting happening on Real Housewives of New Jersey this season). Two weeks to see RHOC newcomer Kelly Dodd mess up another dinner party by calling someone the “c” word (my money is on Shannon being the recipient of that particular doozy). Two weeks until we finally see RHNY’s Bethenny break the Tom/Playboy-bunny cheating news to Luann. And I have to wait two whole weeks to see if Brooks ever returns Vicki’s call!

So, what I propose to the Amazing Programming Genius/National Treasure Andy Cohen is that he get stepping and create a Real Housewives of the Olympic Village. Here are just a few reasons why I think this would be a great addition to the franchise:

Home Improvment1) Housewives and Olympians love a home improvement project (see: Heather Dubrow, Chateau Sheree, Moore Manor), and the busted Rio Olympic Village certainly sounds like a major home improvement project. Not only have there been a ton of complaints about the lackluster accommodations, but several countries have apparently brought in their own repair teams to fix damages.

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2) Olympians, like the Real Housewives, are a super horny bunch (looking at you, New York crew: ie, Luann, Sonja and Ramona). Hundreds of Rio Olympic athletes are active on Tinder, likely making use of the record 450,000 condoms distributed at the Olympic athletes’ village. Some big name Olympic Tinder users include swimmer Ryan Lochte (the Sonja of the Rio games) and golfer Rickie Fowler.

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3) Real Housewives require real private chefs and the Olympic athletes are also enjoying some hand-prepared specialties in the Olympic Village. Although, it’s hard to imagine the ladies of OC or Beverly Hills eating carb-heavy and fried salgadinhos. But I know those ladies would throw down some caipirinhas (also on the Olympic Village menu).

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4) Real Housewives love an excuse to enjoy a yacht (see: “We Got the Yacht” Luann). So do some Olympians, especially the Team USA basketball crew. They decided to skip the Olympic Village and shack up on a luxury cruise ship that sounds fit for a Housewife. “The boat has beds that will accommodate 7-footers (sorry, Bogut), a spa, multiple dining areas, a bar, a cigar lounge and an open-air pool. A weeklong cruise typically costs about $13,000.”

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5) Real Housewives like a good spa day, as do many Olympians who are enjoying the services of his-and-her salons in the Olympic Village and getting free patriotic manicures. Or, you could really go the extra mile as the Team USA men’s basketball team did and go to a “spa,” aka, a brothel. I guess the spa on their luxury cruise ship wasn’t exactly providing the services they so desperately needed.

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6) Speaking of spa services, as we saw on last week’s episode of Real Housewives of Orange County, Shannon Beador is a fan of the Gwynnie-approved therapy known as cupping. Turns out, the US Swim Team is also into cupping, which apparently confused the hell out of a lot of mainstream, TV-viewing Americans the other night. Luckily, thanks to Goop and Real Housewives, I’m up to speed on all the latest kooky health trends. So be sure to be on the lookout for leeches, people.

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7) Real Housewives like, no, need, to travel with a whole lot of luggage, as do Olympians. In the case of the team from Great Britain, they traveled with 3,000 pieces of luggage (9 of which have apparently gone missing).

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8) Finally, just like Real Housewives of New Jersey, the Olympic Village has its’ own tax evader in the form of Brazilian soccer star Neymar. Although, to be fair, Neymar probably isn’t staying in the actual Olympic Village. I’m sure he’s staying on a yacht somewhere with Luann and crew.

Is it a Dress or a Cover Up? Billboard Music Awards Edition

Hi. Remember me? I like to hang out here sometimes.

When last we spoke, I was eating my way through London. Ah, those days.

But let’s just go ahead and jump back into this whole blogging thing, shall we? Because how can we not talk about the fashions at the Billboard Music Awards.

My friend Katie and I often play a game when shopping at H&M. One of us will hold up a “garment” and ask the other, “What the hell is this? I mean, is it a slightly long shirt  or a really short dress? Is it a tunic? What do you wear on the bottom? Do you wear something on the bottom? Where do you wear this? Does it come in a jumbo? Am I too old for this?”

The answer to that last question is invariably, yes.

I thought of all these questions and more when I began to see news stories about Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards, aka: Garments Purchased at Forever 21 and Worn as Formal Wear. And I say, “when the news stories” came out because I’m an old lady and I couldn’t stay up to watch the damn show. I need my sleep.

Let’s start with this young lady, Tove Lo. Now, I have no idea who she is, but she is channeling some Game of Thrones/Lisa Bonet-ness in her orange crochet cover up, I mean, dress. I think you can even see her white bikini! And those are definitely some beach platform wedges.

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And, the official cover up counterpart.

I don’t know what Hot Miami Styles is, but they’ve got some bootylicious cover ups completely suitable for your next red carpet event.

Next up: Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.

2016 Billboard Music Awards - Red Carpet

Priyanka is on “Quantico,” so not really sure why she was at the Billboards. And, since it’s not the “Real Housewives of Quantico,” I’ve never seen it.

Maybe Snow Patrol wrote a song that appeared in an episode and that’s why she was invited? Or, better yet, Desi and Marnie! How great would that be? Or, perhaps Priyanka is dating a musician? Maybe she presented the award for Best World Music Album? Is that a thing? No idea.

Anyway, her dress immediately reminded me of a swimsuit cover up they used to have at Victoria’s Secret in like, a bazillion colors. Alas, they don’t have it anymore. BUT, fear not. I found something similarly beachwear worthy for your next big event from the aptly named clothing line, Venus. Because, truly, don’t you want to feel like a beach goddess at an awards ceremony?

On to one of the award ceremony’s big winners – Taylor Swift.

Actually, my bad. Apparently, she wasn’t at the 2016 event. But she was the very first picture that popped up when I Google image searched “2016 Billboard Awards best and worst dressed.” So, I’ma gonna go ahead and share the beach cover up option, which comes courtesy of those masters of elegance, Forever 21. Also, I had to take that “screen grab” with my phone, so apologies.

But they’re pretty similar, right? In hindsight and with more knowledge thanks to the Google machine, I’m sure they put that peach number in production right after last year’s awards just to capitalize on T. Swifty’s jumpsuit moment. Well played, F21.

OK, back to badly dressed people who actually were at the 2016 event: my gurl Zendaya who said, “You know what? F-it. I’m young, my hair is super on fleek and my body is freaking fantastic. I’m going to this bad boy in my bra and a slip.”

And that’s exactly what she did. That’s taking beach wear as formal wear to a whole other level. The peach number on the right is by a delightful new clothing line I discovered while researching this post known as Yandy. They have quite the selection of cover ups and assorted other tawdry wear for the major events in your life. Like this one:

FA_B323_V2013

I might be mistaken, but I don’t think it qualifies as a “beach cover up” if you’re not wearing a bathing suit underneath. Also, can you just imagine the tan lines? Yikes.

Which brings us to the Queen of Inappropriate Red Carpet Wear. The one. The only. It’s Britney, Bitch.

Again, beach cover up brought to you by Yandy. And, dare I say, the beach cover up is a hell of a lot more demure than the actual Reem Acra bodysuit that Britney chose to frame her muscular, rugby thighs.

I’m actually kinda into the Yandy version of this cover up. You know, maybe as a top with a long peach skirt or something. To wear when I hang around the convent or to bed at 9 pm on a Sunday night.

 

Cracking the Oyster Cracker Code

Yes, we went to London weeks ago, and yes, we’ve been back for a couple of weeks now, and yes, I owe the world some posts about the Ab Fab time we had. But to misquote Kanye, “Yo, London, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but….” (Sidenote: I had to bookmark this Wikisite of Kanye quotes is now bookmarked. Because, let’s be honest, when isn’t a Kanye quote hilarious?)

What was I saying? Oh yeah. Kanye. Or, actually, oyster crackers and why they absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably suck.

Kanye

This tirade is actually not completely out of the blue, and is in fact, London adjacent. We had no food when we got home, so we defrosted some leftover chili out of the freezer. Now, since I’m from Texas, the only suitable accompaniment to chili in my mind are corn-based: cornbread or Fritos. Chili and corn just go together. Period.

My beloved XFE is not similarly palate-encumbered (and apparently, neither are the people of Cincinnati, where this abomination is quite common). He seems to like oyster crackers, and his reasoning seems sound: they’re small, so you can control the portions and they stay crunchy in soups and chilis.

cincinnati chili
Cincinnati does all kinds of weird stuff to their chili, including the use of cinnamon and cloves. Oh, and putting it on top of spaghetti. I believe that’s called “bolognese” NOT chili. 

But it’s precisely this characteristic that makes me so suspicious about the makeup of oyster crackers. What the hell? Why do oyster crackers stay (for the most part) crunchy?

This article gives a bit of history, and clarifies that they are a flour-based product but doesn’t really explain why they stay crunchy.

I would parry that it is because they are horrible. Tasteless, bland, horrible pseudo-accompaniments. Not even good enough to sit next to Saltines in the cracker aisle, because at least Saltines have salt on them. There’s some effort at flavor with a Saltine. Oyster crackers? Not so much.

In fact, I think the recipe for oyster crackers goes something like this:

  1. Take a plastic tub of white paste.
  2. Cook it till hardened.
  3. Top other more flavorful items with the results.
  4. Watch your saliva dry up and your tongue shrink away from the horror.

ralph-the-paste-eater

So they are basically the equivalent of celery. No, scratch that. Because at least with celery, you can stuff that little groove with some spreadable cheese or peanut butter, making them a handy delivery vessel for some yumminess. You can’t spread anything on these stupid, mini-“crackers.” I don’t even recommend you try this, because I have and it does not go well. Those things just fly out of you pinched fingers. Plus, celery is good with Bloody Mary’s so again, oyster crackers < celery.

The other suspicious thing that about oyster cracker is that their shelf life is about equal to that of a cockroach. It’s true. We’ve had the same box of Trader Joe oyster crackers for ages. Because, how would you even know they were stale? They already taste stale and bland, so how would one distinguish a loss of quality? That very shelf life is why we recently had oyster crackers with our chili, and thus, put these odious little cracker wannabes on my radar and led to this long-overdue rant. They were just….there, like they always are, hanging out in our cabinets.

oystercrackers2
Do these look appetizing to anybody?? “No oils, no cholesterol, no preservatives, no flavor. Total waste of chewing.” 

I’m happy to report that no oyster crackers were ingested during our actual visit to London, but a bunch of other English deliciousness was so we’ll get back to that during normal, non-ranty blogging days.

 

Finally, Cambodia

So, Cambodia, y’all.

As I mentioned just briefly a while back, our March trip to Cambodia broke my heart.

cambodian map

Going from Singapore to Cambodia was a complete and mind-numbing culture shock. I mean, I had expected that going from the U.S. to Cambodia would be a bit of a shock but it turns out that going from super-shiny, everything-is-new, non-stop-development Singapore to the poverty and stagnation in Cambodia was way more overwhelming.

As we drove from the airport at Siem Reap to our hotel, we passed dry yellow fields with gray cows so skinny you could count their ribs. Through the dust kicked up by our SUV, I could see children in various states of undress playing in the dirt next to women sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs of all varieties—the women fanning themselves in oppressive humidity, just waiting for someone to stop at their makeshift roadside stalls.

A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.
A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.

Everybody is Cambodia is a roadside entrepreneur, selling everything from plastic soda bottles of smuggled gasoline (makeshift gas stations were everywhere) to those baggy pants with elephants on them to fresh sugar cane juice.

You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.

But none of them seemed to have any customers. Cambodia is, sadly, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Average annual income is $2.60 per day, with a third of the population living on less than $1 per day. According to the World Bank Poverty Assessment Report, Cambodia’s “near-poor”, those who live on less than $2.30 per day per person, may have escaped poverty but remain vulnerable to (even the slightest) economic shocks. The loss of just 1,200 riel  (about $0.30) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty.

It is safe to say that the country and its people have not recovered from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. This failed four-year agrarian, Communist experiment led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, or a quarter of the total population through a combination of executions, disease and starvation. Because of the genocide, up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under 30 years old.

The main victims of the executions were educated people – teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, Cambodia was left to rebuild the country with hardly any educated people left to provide leadership and an ill-equipped, corrupt government.

As a result, Cambodia still has very little infrastructure with just a few roads (only 12% of which are paved), and no train system to speak of (there is a limited train system which runs to the southern seaport of Kampong Saom and to the northwest Thai border.) Much of the population, especially in rural areas, does not have access to electricity.

Yep, those are oxen.
Yep, those are oxen.

The “public” school system is mainly funded—inadequately–by students’ families. As USAID puts it:

Today, Cambodia’s education indicators are among the lowest in Asia. While the primary school net enrollment rate is an impressive 96 percent, the rate for lower secondary is 34 percent and for upper secondary is only 21 percent. Due to high rates of poverty in the rural areas, poor quality of education, and insufficient number of classrooms and teachers, school dropout rates in Cambodia remain high at the primary school (8.7 percent) and lower secondary school (19.6 percent) levels. Cambodia’s education system continues to be affected by a weak public sector service delivery system, minimal teacher capacity, lack of school facilities, and inadequate enrollment levels.

Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.
Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.

An even bigger problem holding the country back is government corruption. While Hun Sen brought in a measure of political and economic stability when he became prime minister in 1985, he’s also ruled with an iron fist and has allowed bribes and corruption to run rampant in his government. (Plus, he recently referred to himself in the third person during a speech celebrating his 30 years of power, and well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine).

According to the reports over at Global Witness, every natural resource — from rubber to rosewood to sand –is exploited by the Cambodian government while the people get nothing. Even one of Bill Gates’ foundation to help prevent malaria has been ripped off by government officials. You know if one of the richest do-gooders in the world can’t keep it from happening, it’s pretty darn pervasive. And criticizing the government is, of course, extra frowned upon.

It’s all the more depressing when you contrast Cambodia today with the former glory and greatness of the Khmer culture. It is almost impossible to reconcile that the people who built the magnificent temples of Angkor are the ancestors of the people who today sit by the roadside scratching out a meager living by selling smuggled gasoline and can’t even send their kids to school.

kids playing

See? I told you Cambodia was heartbreaking.

There is a famous Cambodian proverb: “Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” Cambodians have a mixed bag when it comes to ancestors. But I hope that someday they can get back on the path of their Khmer roots and the golden age of their Angkor ancestors rather than staying captive to their most recent history.

Buddhist as tourist

A Plea to Old People at the Gym

Due to a variety of reasons (upcoming beach vacation, an uptick in free time, wishing to not be winded just by watering the garden, giving up on folding laundry because my arms got tired), my training-partner-for-eternity, XFE and I have been working on our fitness. Like, really working on it. Like, ordering overpriced paleo food from a food delivery service and giving up alcohol during the week. We’re talking a serious amount of dedication from two (ok, one) major couch potato. (Mmmmm, potatoes…..)

Prior to this latest round of fitness fanaticism, I had been going to yoga, albeit, pretty intermittently. Or, as XFE describes it: “napping with old people,” which is a completely accurate description.

And in the middle.

We do live in an area called “Old Town,” by the way, so yes, I am usually one of the younger folks at the 9:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. yoga classes at the Old Town Sport & Health Club down the street from my house. Not a lot of hip, urban professionals around during those times of the day. Just me and the old folks crew, many of whom use that time in yoga class to do whatever the hell stretches or poses they want to do. I’m pretty sure the instructor is just there to make sure no one seriously injures themselves.

In fact, many of my fellow old stogey yogis stick around for the class that follows, which is called “Fusion Stretch.” I have not taken this class (one one-hour stretch-and-nap session per day generally does me in), but the class description promises a “fusion of stretching and stability work….for a relaxing, yet invigorating experience.”

No, with XFE at the helm, we’ve been pushing our out-of-shape (unless you count round as a shape) bodies to their brink. XFE’s favorite form of torture is the innocently sounding, “Club Strength,” which we go to on Saturdays. Because, who doesn’t want to almost throw up without drinking before weekend brunch?

funny-picture-i-dont-always-go-to-the-gym

The name is mostly deceptive. As at a normal club, they do play loud, thumping, repetitive EDM music, but mostly I think it’s to drown out the moans of the victims, erehm, I mean, participants. And, as at a normal club, there is a lot of sweating in skintight neon and black lycra as people kick and thrash to the incessant beat of the music, but that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. Continue reading A Plea to Old People at the Gym

Singapore: First Impressions

Hey there! I’m back.

Actually, I’ve been back for about a week or so, but between jet lag, and digging out of email/work/laundry, I haven’t even had a minute to start going through my photos and trip notes and coming up with some blog fodder.

But, this morning’s news is reporting on the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. So I better get my ass in gear and write something about my recent first visit to Singapore.

Marina Bay Sands
Things to know about Singapore: it’s really, really hot.

My travel-buddy/man-panion for life (XFE) and I actually learned a bit about Lee Kuan Yew at the very excellent National Museum of Singapore. We had gone to the museum primarily to escape the pervasive, bone-soaking, spirit-wilting heat and humidity that is Singapore in early March. The museum is in a blended building, half white colonial stucco, half modern cubist wonder surrounded by rolling green hills and landscaped trees. The important thing and main draw for us was the existence of the blasting, government-subsidized air conditioning.

Disappointingly, the majority of the museum and its exhibits were closed for renovations. But, they did have a condensed, Clif Notes version of the museum’s contents in the basement. It was a really great exhibit. The first part was a bit confusing, something about five kings and a boy who fought a giant swordfish and then was killed by the Sultan who feared him. Anyway, a big mix of legends and facts.

But things really picked up with some great exhibits on the different ethnic groups and immigrants that had come to Singapore when it was a colonial entrepot and trading post. The museum also had a great exhibit on Singapore’s occupation by Japan in World War II, and a brief exhibit on Singapore’s separation from Britain, the city-state’s internal struggle to become independent and self-governed, and it’s brief stint as part of the Federation of Malaysia.

A big player in Singapore was Lee, who was elected as the country’s first Prime Minister in 1959, and served in that capacity until 1990 (He remained a “senior minister” in the Cabinet until 2004, and “minister mentor” till 2011.) Quartz describes Lee’s ruling style best:

Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under British control to one of the world’s most thriving financial centers, and he did so with a tight grip on power. He has been criticized for instituting wide-reaching censorship, limiting civil rights, discriminating against gays and migrant workers, and generally maintaining a one-party autocracy for almost half a century.

That’s because Lee engineered one of the world’s most impressive growth stories—one that everyone from American Republicans to Chinese communists have both openly envied. (“Benevolent dictatorship has never looked so good” one columnist wrote of the Singapore in 2012.)

The tiny, resource-poor country’s GDP per capita skyrocketed under Lee to one of the highest in the world, behind just oil-rich Qatar and private banking center Luxembourg, according to the IMF.

We actually got a bit of a glimpse into the general public’s discontent with this one-party autocracy situation. We were in a cab one evening on our way to the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, a Las Vegas-worthy light and music show involving these tree-like structures that soar up to 160 feet.

Gardens by the Bay

Anyway, our cab driver asked us where we were from, and then launched into a grumbling monologue of discontent with his government’s structure. He told us that they’d had the same ruler/ruling party for six decades (Lee’s son is the current Prime Minister), and that wasn’t democracy, and how the people of Singapore have suffered under this dictatorship. He said the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.

I have to admit: I was shocked and more than a little annoyed. I was in the middle of reading a book about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge — a book about a horrific history in which real humanitarian atrocities were perpetrated by a real political wackjob dictator. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked in Singapore was prosperous and new and shiny and so technologically advanced.

But that cab driver’s rant is not unfamiliar to me. Not at all. You hear it in the U.S. all the time, especially the phrase, “the rich are getting richer while the rest of us get poorer.” I’m sure if I’d dug a little deeper, he would have blamed immigrants, or corporations, or the educational system, or real estate prices, or whatever other boogeyman he was currently facing or competing against.

Perspective is a luxury, I guess. I understand that on a random Tuesday a cab driver in Singapore is not likely to think about how there are people in other parts of the world, say, Cambodia for example, who are just trying to recover from brutal histories and get to somewhere even remotely as economically advanced as Singapore. We all grumble and bemoan our own political systems, and don’t care or think about who our audience is or what perspectives they bring to the table. It’s practically a human trait to complain about other people doing better than we perceive ourselves to be doing.

I don’t know if Lee was a horrible leader. I don’t know if that cab driver in Singapore might have been richer if a new, completely different party was elected every four years. There are certainly some people in the U.S. who would say that no, a new party doesn’t necessarily mean prosperity, or even anything remotely like it. But it does seem to me, an outsider, that Singapore–a small island nation with no natural resources that was practically decimated in World War II–did alright at the end of the day. It’s a good legacy to have.

Singapore night view

(Here’s another really good Quartz article on the rise of Singapore under Lee’s policies.)