Sunset

In my most previous article I wrote about the beauty of watching the sun rise from the beach. Once again, I confess that I am not a morning person. I’m rarely up with the sun and it’s just too darn early and too much of an effort for me to see a local sunrise. Though recently, I did catch a local sunrise, although it was from the back seat of a car, a predawn departure headed to an airport for an early morning flight.  When I am in the tropics and wake up naturally, I will sometimes take the opportunity to watch the sun come up. However, I always take any opportunity to watch the sun go down. Perhaps the timing just works better for me. While almost every sunset is beautiful in its own way, somehow a sunset watched from a sandy beach is just that much better. Watching the sun rise is more of a quiet, personal experience. I would describe it as being introspective, contemplative and peaceful. Sunset can be as tranquil as you wish as a solo experience or you can seek out fellow “sundowners” for a celebration and share the experience. Sitting on a somewhat empty beach while others are showering and dressing for dinner you are likely to encounter fellow sunset watchers. I will always be one of them. Unlike the morning sky with its heavenly pale blues and whites, the evening offers changing colors much like a dying fire. As the sun sets, the atmosphere bends the rays of light allowing us to see the individual bands of colors of red, yellow and then, if everything falls into place, sometimes green. Catching a glimpse of green doesn’t happen that often and when it does it’s immediately after the sun has slipped past the horizon leaving behind an echo of color. It’s called the “green flash.” Because the atmosphere has to have exact conditions to see any colors past red and yellow it’s a rarity to see the elusive green flash. Still, I keep searching. But it’s not the green flash that draws people together as the sun retires for the day. It’s often just simple camaraderie to share the passing of day into night. Many beach resorts will observe a sunset ritual. This is a growing trend where the resort guests are invited to gather on the most west facing point of the property. Cocktails are usually involved with a toast and a sip coinciding with the sun slipping down below the distant horizon where the sky meets the water. The “W” by Starwood Hotels is one such chain that encourages its guests to gather, drinks in hand, to raise a glass and toast the setting sun. It’s a nice way to end the day, meet your fellow guests and, to be just a tad cynical, a great way to increase drink sales. The popularity of sunset rituals is growing and entire towns have found it lucrative to celebrate. Indeed, Clearwater, Florida has taken it to a whole different level and holds a daily festival called Sunsets at Pier 60. It’s a family friendly event with street performers, craft vendors, live bands and they even offer viewing of current movies for free! Certainly Clearwater reaps the financial benefits of attracting tourists in addition to local families. But, it’s also bringing people together and building a sense of community. That’s really what sunset rituals are about. You’ll often hear “see you at sunset” as a parting phrase that is as common as “have a good evening.” Of course the granddaddy of them all and probably the original sunset celebration happens at Mallory Square Dock in Key West, Florida. The festival attracts international as well as domestic visitors and the nightly crowd numbers in the thousands. I presume that it was an inspiration for the Clearwater festival as Key West also offers arts and crafts, performers, music and food. According to the Sunset Celebration website that describes the Key West ritual, “legend has it that Tennessee Williams initiated the ritual of applauding the sunset at Mallory Square, gin and tonic firmly in hand.” I suppose that the sunset impressed him enough to set that gin and tonic down, allowing him to utilize both hands to clap. Today, musicians, jugglers and magicians are all part of the sunset ritual in Key West, Florida. If you prefer your sunset with a bit of history, say 5000 years’ worth of history, then Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England is the place for you. When I first visited Stonehenge you were allowed to walk freely about the stones. Today, due to vandalism, that privilege has been revoked although licensed tour operators are permitted to bring participants into the roped off inner circle to view the rising or setting sun through the monoliths. The experience is historic, a bit gothic and even ethereal as you stand amongst the ruins built by people who sought to track the passage of time, thousands of years ago. I have had the opportunity and enjoyed joining in group sunset celebrations in multiple locations. I too, have applauded a spectacular sunset and have noticed that I am seldom alone in my admiration. I figure if Mother Nature is going to go to all that effort and create something spectacularly beautiful the least I can do is show some appreciation for a job well done. Of course, at the end of the day, both figuratively and literally, I believe I prefer a quieter observance of the world turning. Perhaps with someone special or in the quiet company of just myself. I have a couple of favorite soundtracks that complement both the majesty and the miracle at work in front of me. It doesn’t have to be a beach location. There are some nice viewing spots right here in the Hudson Valley and then I’m often in the company of a good dog. It doesn’t get any better than that. I hope to “see you at sunset!”

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Sunrise

I didn’t plan to get up so early. It happened naturally and it seemed just as natural for me to head to the beach. The rolling surf of the waters in Riviera Maya, Mexico was strong and increasing in effort. The clouds were hovering close to the horizon but the sky was still very pale with the faintest hint of blue and that was a good sign. For a while, the seabirds were my only company but they were more focused on finding breakfast than whether or not I posed a threat to them. The shape of the clouds started to change and I watched as a storm rolled in but it only dropped a light sprinkling of rain and was quickly followed by more blue sky. The locals will tell you that if the day starts with rain, more than likely, it will rain all day. Sprinkles apparently don’t count though, because I got lucky and it turned out to be a beautiful day. Occasionally, you will meet a fellow early riser. They might be another resort guest or they might have strolled over from a neighboring property. If it’s their first time attending a beachside sunrise they might attempt to start a conversation. But, if they are experienced sunrise observers, you will receive only a nod, sometimes accompanied by a soft greeting, but the quiet of the morning is almost always respected. You might see a jogger, often with headsets in their ears, taking advantage of the open space that an empty beach offers. Who knows if they’re actually listening to music or an audio book or just discouraging conversation? The opportunity to watch the sun come up is available on an almost daily basis, so I hear. However, most people, myself included, are rushing around, getting ready for work, school or wherever the day needs to take them. I always trade that morning light for the opportunity to catch a few more minutes of sleep, tending to the needs of my animals or just the daily routine of getting ready to go to work. If you’ve had the chance to observe both rise and set of the sun you will understand when I say that I am in awe of how much a sunrise varies from a sunset. Despite the obvious differences of a sun coming up and you have daylight versus a sun going down and you have darkness, there’s so much more to it than that. The changing colors of the sky that take you from dark to light are pale and soft in varying hues of blues and whites and probably closer to what most people believe Heaven to look like. Like life, there are those days when it can be gray if there’s a storm approaching on the horizon. Sunsets are more passionate as though the sky had been set on fire with yellow and orange and crimson. It’s also possible to catch a glimpse of violet. Bearing witness to a sunrise requires a bit of planning, at least for me. For morning commuters who drive with the sun in their eyes, it’s probably more of a nuisance than a daily miracle.  I suspect that people on vacation who spend their routine work lives responding to an alarm clock to get to work on time wouldn’t choose to do that on their days off and I understand that.  Being the night person that I am, seeing the sun rise is absolutely a commitment of effort. It also only happens when I’m near a beach. Normally, it requires preparation that includes researching when the sun will rise. I usually have to set an alarm, prepare my clothing and based upon where I am staying, I might even have to arrange early morning transportation. That’s why I was surprised when each morning at the Mexican resort I awoke naturally and used the opportunity to quietly dress and slip unnoticed out of my resort room without disturbing my roommate. My desire for an early departure for the beach isn’t directed by any physical activity. I don’t go to jog on an empty beach, I don’t go to practice yoga or meditate. I go for the peace and to witness the closest thing to a miracle that I ever expect to see in my mortal life. The resort where I was staying was large, with three distinct and very separate areas and my accommodations were in a section that was furthest from the beach. So much so that it required that I take a jitney to the beach. By the third day, the overnight attendant was no longer surprised by my early morning appearance and request for transport to the water. If tide and time wait for no man it’s equally true when it comes to sunrise. There would be no rationale for the early morning expedition if I missed the main attraction. The weather reports had predicted storms for the duration of my stay and each morning, I cautiously viewed the sky, looking for clues as to what the day’s weather patterns might be. Each morning, I gambled that the trek to the beach would yield positive results and each morning I was rewarded with changing cloud patterns on the horizon and a beautiful start to each day. In the span of an average life you might have 22,000 opportunities to witness the rise of the sun. Weather, work and responsibilities and sleeping in will greatly reduce that number. I say “carpe diem,” seize the day, from the moment it starts, and take the opportunity to make the effort to witness a miracle.

Slow Down, You’re Moving Too Fast

Of all the “seven deadly sins” I’m just not convinced that “Sloth” should be on the list. Granted, it doesn’t make the top five of a fairly short list, but I still think that it gets a bad rap. Have you ever met a sloth that you didn’t like? Have you ever even met a sloth? I have and I believe that maybe they’re on to something. We can learn a lot from the sloths and I firmly feel that their lazy reputation is not warranted.   Sloths have been around for a really long time. According to the web they’re just about coming up on their 100th million anniversary on earth. That’s impressive, especially when you consider that mankind has only been around for about 200,000 years, with the current model evolving about 50,000 years ago. Maybe that’s why we humans are always in a hurry. We rush around as though we always feel the need to catch up. But, catch up with what? Granted, we are a nation of very busy people. We need 24 hour shopping, 24 hour banking, 24 hour access to just about everything. Heck, I still remember when even TV stations shut down at 2am. Now television is 24 hours and 7 basic stations have suddenly become 100 plus. Wise words from Simon & Garfunkel admonished us to “slow down, you move too fast” but I don’t think any of us are listening. Worldwide, other cultures value the chance to slow down. The average European can get almost a month of vacation time with many enjoying a holiday that extends from July into August. I find that the average traveler coming into my travel agency tries to squeak out a week here and there, often trying to jam as much vacation into 7 days (tour of Europe, anyone?) as an Australian squeezes into 7 weeks. Perhaps you even remember the film “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium?” That describes most American travelers to a tee. But, the sloth is never in a hurry. They come in two categories. I would think it would be listed as slow and slower but it’s actually two-toed or three-toed. I was part of a small group touring through a rainforest when I met my first sloth in Central America. It’s hard to tell if he or she was awake or even breathing. I waited very patiently for a sign of movement, any movement, but I never saw so much as a twitch. When they do move they can be clocked at 13 feet a minute so it’s easy to understand why they are considered the slowest animal on earth. Sloths will regularly descend from their trees for, shall we say, a restroom break. That surely requires some planning because it takes a sloth 3 full days to descend from a tree and then 3 full days to ascend back up that same tree. Basically, that leaves only 1 day for a potty break and anything else they might have to do while on the ground. How can you call that lazy? It sounds like a pretty full schedule to me. However, Sloths move so slowly that it’s common for algae to grow on their coats. That’s actually a good thing because it provides them with a natural form of camouflage. But, before we fault them for their slothful ways, we have to understand that it is less a lifestyle choice and more a result of evolution. Sloths are built for climbing and hanging in trees. They are not designed for walking and when on the ground have no choice but to pull themselves along, slowly, arduously, using their front legs. Because this places them in an extremely vulnerable position, they spend the majority of their lives in the trees. I was struck by how defenseless they seemed. It is not unusual for a patient predator to await the weekly descent to grab an easy meal. Surprisingly, it might not be that easy. The sloth will put up a fight, using both talons and teeth to defend itself and I can’t help but root for them and wish victory for the adorable creatures. Two-toed sloths are different from three-toed sloths in more ways than just one toe. I learned that both versions actually have 3 toes and it’s really the amount of the claw-like nails on each foot that is counted. They vary in size, snout length and hair color so even though they might look similar they are considered to be more like distant cousins. Their more distant cousins, perhaps 32 times removed are the Aardvark and the Anteater, both odd looking animals in their own right. I have only seen photo images of the two toed sloth but never one in the flesh. Since the three toed sloth is more common they are more likely to be seen by tourists. I also find them to be cuter, no doubt due to their facial markings which give them the appearance of smiling. They sort of remind me of happy raccoons. Or perhaps like a smiling abominable snowman like the one in the Christmas holiday cartoon. Sloth versions 1.2 and 1.3 are both adept swimmers and that’s more than I can say for myself. So, go ahead, take that nap, hang out in your hammock and recharge those batteries. I won’t call you a Sloth!