The Care and Feeding of Good Ideas

Last year in the October 2007 issue of Reader’s Digest, I wrote about average folks who saw their great ideas turn into reality. A Greek grandmother sewed together a baby carrier for her daughter and, next thing you know, the Korbie is in SkyMall magazine. A mother and daughter invented a game that uses idioms, earned Merriam-Webster’s stamp of approval, and Befudiom is now available on Amazon.com. A couple with small kids made a spill-resistant bowl, called it a Loopa, and it now sells in Bed, Bath and Beyond.

While researching the article, I spent some time with Enventys, the Charlotte, North Carolina company that helped these and other inventors get their products to the shelves, free of charge. The inventor retains rights to their products and receives a portion of the profits. Remembering how struck I was by this company’s creativity and energy, I recently reconnected with Enventys and I’m glad I did.  Good ideas flow through that company like ice cream at an August picnic.

Enventys execs travel the country searching for the next great idea. They hold casting calls for people who have an idea they’ve sketched on a napkin to those who’ve created a full-fledge prototype. The inventors who have ideas with real market potential are chosen to be their “Everyday Edisons.” The Enventys invention pros then help the Edisons develop, create, brand, and market their ideas. The entire process is then chronicled on PBS. (For airdates, check local listings).

So many ideas came at them, the folks at Enventys realized they couldn’t possibly accommodate all the inventors. But it didn’t seem right to turn them away so they created a site that could help any inventor in any stage of the creative process. Ah! If only I had this tool when writing the story! When I told people about my story, without fail, they said, “Hey, I have an idea.” I wish I could have pointed them this website.

Now I can. Go to www.EdisonNation.com. Here you can get support from other inventors who’ve been there, done that. You can use the network to get help, find clients, or hire an expert. You can even submit your product directly to retailers. Who knows where your idea will end up?

First appeared on rd.com on June 20, 2008

Shared Space

I love a good story. Doesn’t everyone? Some of the first storytellers sat around campfires and conveyed their views of the world and life by telling each other yarns around crackling flames. Generations of human beings followed suit, replacing the fire with dinner tables, coffee shops, church pews and water coolers. Gradually and without warning, microchips and the infinite universe of the Internet took over—and blogs, Facebook, and MySpace pages and became a gathering point.

The need for connection endures. From the very best conversation, we gain insights into how we should live. Yet with all the available information out there, I have no idea what “to Google” to find help in solving family conflicts, job quandaries, major and, often, minor life decisions.

I know I’m not alone. As I run through a mental photo album of my contemporaries here in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I see a pattern. Many of us are on similar quests in search of vocations, relationships, or experiences that will give our lives meaning. It’s tough these days: We’re scattered for the most part. We live miles from our parents, our childhood communities, our geographic cultures. We can log on to the web and do our jobs, see a movie, order dinner, even make new friends without ever leaving our four walls. We struggle to stay connected to something larger than ourselves and frequently think we’re missing out on something, but don’t know what. We try to live life well, but are constantly puzzled by the huge “How?”

I don’t pretend to have the answers myself. But I’d like to think that three years of motherhood, six years of marriage, seventeen years as a journalist, decades of friendships, and 30…er…something years as a sister and daughter have given me some ideas. I do know how to find a good story. In my daily reporting job for Reader’s Digest, I’m constantly amazed by the people I interview—their ingenuity, their creativity, and basic goodness— especially when pushed. Even the government. Yes, that institution we all love to bash, does come through with some winning solutions.

Carol with her kids

How have others figured out the “How?” Many of us, self included, believe this starts with tending to the closest relationships, but meaning comes on the macro level, too, whether it’s involvement with community, creating a better professional life—and for the truly brave among us—tackling issues of global importance. So I’m going hunting to find people who’ve seemed to hit upon prized pathways. I’ll share with you what I find with the hope that someone’s inspiration could be someone else’s solution. I’d love to hear your ideas, too. After all, we all share the same space.

Originally appeared on rd.com on June 20, 2008

http://www.rd.com/blogs/shared-space/Shared-Space/post3307.html

Mama Cat (National Geographic magazine, January 2006)

Growing Up Cheetah @ National Geographic Magazine

By Carol KaufmannPhotographs by Anup and Manoj Shah


Vigilant mother cheetahs in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve must fight the odds—and stronger predators—as they raise their cubs on the run.



How do you stay alive in a landscape filled with stronger predators, where lions or hyenas will kill your offspring, and jackals or vultures will steal your food? You keep moving. Binti, a new mother, gently nabs one of her ten-day-old cubs by the scruff of the neck. Although mother and cub are protected from human harm in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, they must still combat a harsh world. Binti, whose name means “daughter” in Swahili, learned maternal skills from a peerless teacher—her mother, Amani. “Amani’s practical, cool, efficient,” says Anup Shah, who documented and named her growing family over three years.

Binti owes her survival to Amani’s faithful routine. At about six months Binti actively began learning how to hunt. So will her offspring. Cheetahs like a fresh kill and must pursue and catch their prey. Cubs are good observers, watching their mother whether she’s scouting for prey, sharpening her claws, or stalking potential dinner.

When the family needs to eat, Amani climbs atop a nearby termite mound to survey the undulating plain. A Thomson’s gazelle has strayed from its herd. Amani focuses her amber eyes. The gazelles continue to graze. Amani crouches, shoulders hunched, ears flat back, frozen. A few steps propel her into a run. Her speed builds, and within seconds she reaches full sprint. She sails across the savanna, often airborne, a symphony of speed and grace.

But the gazelle has a head start. Clocking speeds nearly as fast as the cheetah’s 60-plus miles (100 kilometers) an hour, the gazelle makes quick turns intended to throw Amani off. Despite being the world’s fastest land animal, a cheetah snags such prey only about half the time. This is one of the good times. Amani trips the gazelle with an outstretched paw. With one last bleat, the gazelle goes down. Amani goes for the throat, her bite suffocating the prize. Over the next several months the sharp-eyed cubs will try to emulate Amani’s behavior—and fail miserably, mainly because their prey notices their awkward approaches. So mother makes them practice, over and over.

“Successful mothers seem to produce really successful cubs,” says Marcella Kelly, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has tracked female cheetah lineages for up to eight generations. “They’re nervous, excitable, vigilant. In the wild they need to be jumpy. Cubs most likely pick up these traits.”

Once young cheetahs are on their own, it can take months for them to become skilled hunters. Some adolescent cheetahs start out hunting impossible prey, including buffalo. Those who learn from their mistakes survive. Among Amani’s successes is her daughter: Binti had her five cubs in the same area where Amani gave birth to her.



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And That’s My Final Offer (Washington Post, Travel section, February 8, 2004)

And That’s My Final Offer . . .
In Morocco, Shopping Can Be a Hassle Unless You Know How to Haggle

By Carol Kaufmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2004

We tried not to look American. We covered our legs and arms, despite the oppressive heat. We didn’t wear tennis shoes, T-shirts or baseball caps. We even had our “We’re Canadian” routine ready. Since 9/11 and the war on terrorism, we were prepared for a less-than-welcoming reception in a Muslim country. Nevertheless, our pasty-white faces and the Rough Guide to Morocco gave us away.

But here, Americans need only fear an irresistible sales pitch — and getting all the purchases home. Our anticipated introduction to Moroccan culture quickly morphed into a mini-seminar on perfecting the haggle. The start-up phase, however, wasn’t pretty.

Three hours in Marrakech and I was eager to take my new husband, Kevin, shopping, souk-style. We meandered to the Jemaa el-Fna, the square where locals gather to hear a story or watch a dance — and tourists gather to watch them. North of the square, miles of stalls organized by trade cover the ground.

We wasted no time getting hopelessly lost, and asking a local for directions, we learned, costs money. In our case, it meant a detour to the family spice stall. After buying two scented soaps for $15, we were shown familiar territory — for $5 more.

Our adopt-a-guide experience was a typical introduction to Marrakech, but it hardly compared with the first carpet sale. To escape the afternoon sun and the onslaught of donkey carts, motor scooters and carcass-lined butcher shops, we ducked into the Artisane di Tapis, an official-looking building with smiling hosts.

Inside, carpets, furniture, jewelry, brass, leather and pottery brush the tops of cathedral-high ceilings. We had entered a shopper’s nirvana, one of the largest craft stores in northern Africa.

A sharp-dressed man named Ben Allal explained that all employees were paid by the government regardless of sales. We could walk away with nothing, he insisted, and he’d still be smiling. His rapid-fire Arabic summoned glasses of sweet mint tea deftly poured a foot above the rims — “Tea with a turban,” Ben called the frothy brew. Carpets unrolled before us as Ben explained how to tell a rug’s origin by color and how Berber women can weave in tribal tales.

One hour and several mint teas later, Ben had gathered before us the five carpets we liked most. We were giddy from the sugar and caffeine and air conditioning.

“I give you one price for all.”

I knew what was coming. But like riding past a car wreck, I couldn’t turn away.

“36,000 dirhams.”

About $4,085. I had a price in mind for one carpet: $300.

“We can’t do that,” I said. “No buying today.” Ben would be fine with rejection; he was paid either way.

“For you, special price. Global price. All of it . . . the Berber, two small Arabs, the large Arab . . . ”

“How about just one shaggy Berber?” I asked.

“But I like the two smaller Arabs. And the big mauve Arab is gorgeous,” said Kevin. A man who never notices dust bunnies and clothes lining the bedroom floor has an opinion about carpets? Perhaps this was worth a haggle.

“Okay for all . . . I give you all . . . and this is truly special. 30,000 dirhams.”

I stared at him, not breaking my gaze. It was still too much. “Honey,” I said. “It’s great that you love these. But we can’t buy them all. One, maybe.”

“Yes, but when are we going to be in Morocco again?”

I sighed. That line always works on me.

“Ben, look. We love them but can’t afford them. Plus, we have a small house, there’s not room for all. How about the Berber and maybe two small Arab ones?”

“But someday you will have a bigger house, Inshallah.”

Inshallah: God willing. We would come to know the ubiquitous phrase well during our stay. Kevin looked at me hopefully. “True. Someday we’ll have a bigger house.”

“I know the manager. I’ll work it out with him. 25,000.”

“I’m so sorry. We have two weeks in Morocco.”

“20,000.”

Kevin and I looked at each other. $2,250. “Deal.”

“Inshallah!” Ben exclaimed, bursting into a big grin and clasping our hands together in a firm shake. “You don’t take them right now on your travels. They stay here and you come back to get them.”

We watched Ben’s men roll our prize into tight burlap-covered bundles with my name on them. Receipts secured, we told Ben we’d be back in two weeks. Inshallah.

We left Marrakech in the dust for Ouarzazate, the gateway to the desert — a 350-curve trip on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass through the High Atlas Mountains. Along the way, villagers sell geodes and fossils on tenuous-looking tables along the cliff’s edge. Rustic cafes offer tagine, a Moroccan version of a blue-plate special cooked outdoors, and a bathroom stop, generally the hole-in-the-ground variety. Rising from the terra-cotta land are unpainted sandstone buildings, identical to the earth’s color but with sharper angles — a Berber version of “Where’s Waldo?”

We stopped in Agdz, an oasis along the Draa River. At a cafe, we asked if we could buy luggage, since our carpet purchases exceeded suitcase capacity. We were led to Hassan, a Berber merchant who spends nine months of the year traveling through southern Morocco, Mali and Mauritania bartering goods for materials to trade with big-city buyers, who then sell to customers like us.

Chest-high piles of folded carpets outlined his modest shop, about the size of our living room. In a closet-size back room hung daggers, leather pouches and silver boxes with inlaid stones that were filled with necklaces made of lapis lazuli, turquoise, coral and amber. I didn’t see any luggage. But the carpets’ indigo, saffron and henna colors had their own allure.

“Come. You will be Berber,” Hassan said to me. Over my head went a dress fringed with rainbow-colored baubles and a deep blue veil for my hair. Hassan gathered it beneath my chin and twisted it up around my head, so it looked like a giant doughnut. The end of the cloth draped across my face, leaving only my eyes visible. He adorned me with traditional Berber jewelry — a chunky sundial for the wrist, stone necklaces, a heavy amulet. The little room was warm without air conditioning and with added layers, but I liked my outfit.

Hassan eagerly displayed his wares, every new showing preceded by a “No buy — it’s okay! This from the heart. Look!” He held a flame beneath a carpet’s silk threads, woven so tightly that no air passes through.

For two hours, Hassan’s almond eyes danced and the lines of his desert-worn face broadened into smiles. With body forward and eyes locked, he frequently offered his handshake when we understood each other’s jokes. I didn’t want to leave his floor — or my Berber dress — and miss tales about his Saharan caravan. The longer we stayed, the more we wanted to retain a piece of his stories. Surprisingly, we had to ask if we could buy. We left with two carpets for $400, our best deal in Morocco.

Was he trying to sell to us the moment we walked through the door? Or did he really just want to chat away a hot afternoon? Perhaps both, but it didn’t matter. He made his living by talking and had offered a private tutoring session. Maybe purchases are also signs of gratitude.

Hassan clapped his hands. “Wait! I give you this. A wedding present.” Hassan put in my hand a silver and coral necklace I had admired. I thanked him with a double-handed handshake, hoping he understood my appreciation.

Kevin came down with the Moroccan flu in Zagora, the last stop before the Sahara begins. After surrounding him with bottled water and dehydration salts in air-conditioned hotel glory, I set out to discover whether an American woman alone would be a recipe for disaster.

A simple question or a stroke of the display gives a merchant permission to begin the dance, so I let my eyes shop and kept my mouth shut. With my hands full of scavenged goods from my suitcase, I went in search of a little horse-trading. I found Himi, no more than 25, happy to drown me with tea. Deliberately, I showed little interest in his jewelry, shaking my head and grimacing the whole time.

“One ring.” I held up my index finger. He showed me fistfuls of necklaces draped with jewels. “Just one ring.”

“Have anything to trade?”

“Yes, I have some things.” I glanced nonchalantly at my bag.

He gathered pieces I looked at longer than most. I fingered the lapis lazuli necklace. Mistake.

“How much for each piece?” I asked.

“No, I give you global price,” countered the Berber. “Then you give me yours.”

The “global price” topped $1,000, a deal going downhill fast.

“What would you take for these?” I held up my khakis and T-shirts.

“600 dirhams.”

Sixty-seven dollars seemed more than fair, but it still wouldn’t make a dent in the collection.

“I can’t afford it. I’ll be going.”

“No! How much?”

I understood. It was culturally unacceptable for me to have shown a hint of interest, say prices were too expensive and walk out. I must bargain.

“I have only 600 dirhams in my pocket. That’s it.”

“But how much for all?”

“600 dirhams.”

“No. How much?”

At the risk of completely insulting the fledgling tradesman, I took most of the jewels away, save two rings, some material and an amulet.

“Just this.”

“950 dirhams,” Himi said. We were getting somewhere, but $95 was still too much.

“600, plus the clothes.”

“Clothes are part of global price. How much for all?”

“I told you — 600 dirhams, plus clothes for all.”

“No, how much.”

“I’m leaving. This is a fair price.”

“You’re leaving?”

Just like that, the hand clasps mine.

“600 dirhams! Deal!”

I couldn’t stop smiling on the way back, thinking my broken-in khakis and faded T-shirts would be making the rounds in the Sahara. And my ailing husband would get a ring.

The afternoon before our flight back to the States, we returned to Marrakech and tried to navigate our way back to our bundles and Ben. The walls of the city finally gave way to a familiar arched opening and we recognized the chaotic mobbed street.

We crept up to the Artisane di Tapis drenched with sweat, frazzled, ready to leave everything Moroccan behind. Except our carpets.

“Ben. Is Ben here?”

“Yes. He’s waiting for you.” Bet they say that to all the girls.

Ben walked over to me, arm extended. Two men followed, with our bundles in hand. “I was worried about you. Glad to see you, my old friend,” said Ben. “Where’s your husband?”

“He’s staying in the car.”

“Come. We park car. Drink tea. Tell me about trip.”

We retrieved a damp Kevin and made our way to the room with the carpet rolls. Mint tea was on its way. All was well.

“Morocco good to you?” Ben asked.

We launched into our surprise over the kind reception.

“Ah, yes. After 9/11, Americans stopped coming to Morocco,” Ben said. “They’re afraid to travel to Arab lands. But we don’t hate Americans. We know it’s politics. We’re all just people.”

Then, like every ideal salesman, Ben closed the deal.

“You come back to Morocco?”

I nodded with sincere enthusiasm.

“You tell all your friends?”

For general information on Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Office of Tourism, 011-212-48-846277, http://www.tourisme-marocain.com.Carol Kaufmann is a writer in Alexandria.

How to Haggle in Morocco
• Read guidebooks about shopping in Morocco before you go.

• Don’t ask about or touch an item if you’re not interested.

• Decide with your spouse, travel companion or inner shopping demon exactly how much you’re willing to spend on a piece.

• Master the currency conversion rate before you venture out.

• Don’t dress in your Sunday best if you want a good deal. Conversely, don’t wear shorts or sleeveless shirts, no matter what the temperature. Respect for the culture breeds respect for negotiations.

• Take tea when it’s offered. It’s polite, and the tea is fabulous.

• Don’t walk out if the merchant offers an absurdly high price at first. Suggest an absurdly low counteroffer. Then the fun begins.

• Bring extra clothes for bargaining purposes. Jeans and athletic shoes are a big hit.

• Don’t let the constant catcalls pitching “good deals” dissuade you from experiencing famed Moroccan hospitality and the game of negotiating prices.

• Act vaguely uninterested or uncertain on items. Be ready to walk out if the price isn’t right.

• Never pull out a wad of cash.

— Carol Kaufmann
© 2004 The Washington Post Company

THE MAMA TRICK | The Well Mom

By Carol Kaufmann
Let me guess. You’ve given birth for the first time in your thirties, maybe forties, during a successful, all-consuming career. You used to consider yourself fairly together: a well-used PDA, food in the fridge, and regular plans, like dinner and yoga. Then, Precious Baby came along and that life vanished.

The initial heady period of motherhood sustained me for a good three weeks. During my two rounds in the maternity ward I spent virtually every hour holding my Precious Babies (PB), smiling down at chubby folds in skin and every exquisite gesture. The prescription drugs kept me from feeling the c-section’s incision and the realization I wouldn’t be sleeping for more than three hours straight for a very, very long time. But eventually, the well-wishers and food-bearers trickled to nothing and my husband and I were left with unwashed piles of laundry and the guilt of unordered baby announcements. Maternity clothes looked stupid and, after nine months of wear, bored me, though none of my other pants would rise past mid-thigh. I was grumpy and eating way too much dark chocolate. Worse loomed the nagging question: Would the rest of my years be a blur of washing bottles and stolen catnaps?

Can you relate? Maybe right now you’re wondering, with a sinking feeling, if you, too, will ever get back to normal.

Yes. And no.

I’m learning, slowly and painfully, how Motherhood requires a major mind shift. Obviously, prioritizing your children is paramount, but equally so is adjusting your own world view. I call this the Mama Trick.

Your home, personal calendar, car, yard, Blackberry, office files, gym locker, refrigerator, whatever space used to feel like your own is never going to be up to the par that once worked for you. Par is history. But it’s ok. It’s OOOOOOO KAAAAAYAYYYYY. Each day, if you and your children’s basic needs are met, you win. The rest is gravy – even that daily shower where you use soap, shampoo, AND conditioner. You’ve taken on the most important responsibility in the world: the care and nurturing of another human. If you succeed at that, what else is there?

I know, I know. You still don’t feel like it’s enough, do you, Superwoman? Me either.

So if the race to the end-of-day finish line is simply not satisfying in that deep, soul-fulfilling way, try this. Give yourself one task. ONE. You could choose to file your nails. Reorganize your panty (still a size or two above your norm, right?) drawer. Rush over to the Banana Republic sale (with or without the coupon you intended to use). But times have changed. And Mommyhood has changed your time. What you choose to fill your day (hour, half-hour, five minutes) with is now, by process of elimination, more precious. So make your daily do-for-me thing count. Download your photos of your child’s first three months. Journal a few sentences. Call the friend who makes you laugh harder than anyone else rather than watching TiVoed Grey’s Anatomy episodes. Haven’t you seen them all, anyway?

When my Life With Kids gets truly hectic, I slip into what I call “Organization Fantasy Mode.” Just last week I found myself daydreaming about eliminating all the clutter in my house. My brain went wild. If my mind couldn’t ooze tranquility, my four walls could. So in my overactive head, I reorganized the family room, eliminated some major (heavy) pieces of furniture that contained family heirlooms, turned our dining room into a playroom (would we ever be using the family silver now?), and converted our bedroom into a bastion of peace. The problem with all this is that while streamlining looks good in my mind’s eye, the reality requires lots of hefty lifting, moving furniture that may or may not fit past absurdly small doorways, a complete purging of the attic, painting a few tables and walls that will no longer be covered by previously mentioned furniture, and relocating most of our electronic equipment – which I don’t know how to reconnect.

Even without small kids (and a job and cats), such a project would take the better part of a week. With small kids? A six month minimum. But since tranquility in some part of life is now crucial to me, I settled on initial task: Discarding old shoe boxes. It doesn’t sound like a lot, true. But this tiny job, accomplished in about fifteen minutes, made room in our attic hell for the aforementioned family heirlooms. I’m on my way. And given everything else that life hands you in the early days of motherhood, that fifteen minutes made me proud – and even a little more balanced.

Think about it. In your former childless, perhaps even self-obsessed, life, did discarding shoeboxes ever take on such meaning? Did it ever positively exhilarate you? Try it now: One Mama Trick. And notice how you feel like Wonder Woman wrestling baddies to the ground with her lasso.

And while you’re catapulting your own proverbial shoe boxes from your cramped attic, consider your new identity. You, this new gal with the disorganized abode, never-ending laundry piles, and little people who constantly need need need, you’ve YOU’VE become something better, someone more important, than you’ve ever been.

You’re someone’s mother.


Carol Kaufmann will regularly share her Mama Tricks with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria,
Virginia, with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

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A River’s Gifts

Published: January 2007, National Geographic Magazine
A River’s Gifts
Why did Romans, Celts, and even prehistoric settlers submerge their personal belongings, from swords to dishes, in a shallow river in Slovenia?
By Carol Kaufmann

Archaeologist Andrej Gaspari is haunted by pieces of the past. His hometown river, the Ljubljanica, has yielded thousands of them—Celtic coins, Roman luxuries, medieval swords—all from a shallow 12-mile stretch. Those who lived near and traveled along the stream that winds through Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana considered it sacred, Gaspari believes. That would explain why generations of Celts, Romans, and earlier inhabitants offered treasures—far too many to be accidental—to the river during rites of passage, in mourning, or as thanksgiving for battles won.

But Gaspari may never be able to explain for certain why the Ljubljanica holds one of Europe’s richest stores of river treasures, many of them remarkably preserved by the soft sediments and gentle waters. Too many pieces of the puzzle have already disappeared.

During the past two decades, sport divers have made the river their playground, removing most of some 10,000 to 13,000 objects found so far. Even though removing artifacts from the Ljubljanica has long been illegal, professional archaeologists have been forced to compete with private collectors. Some divers sold their loot to museums; others to the highest bidder. Some kept their treasures private. Many artifacts have left the country, untraceable. Gaspari’s greatest torment comes from the knowledge that few maverick collectors know—or care—where exactly their prizes were found. For an archaeologist, an object’s meaning comes as much from its context—location, association with other objects—as from the prize itself. Without context, there is no story.

Mladen Mück is one of Gaspari’s tormentors. Now in his 40s, the Bosnian-born architectbegan diving in the river in 1985 and has brought up about a thousand pieces. In his kitchen in Ljubljana, a plastic box contains prehistoric tools. Upstairs, dusty cases hold other rare artifacts, including deer antler axes. Mück says he has no intention of selling what he has found. Like many collectors, he babies his goods and claims they are better off with him than with the authorities.

“More people see these artifacts in my house than if I gave them to a museum,” he says with a dismissive wave. “There they would sit in a basement.”

Gaspari disagrees. A team at the National Museum of Slovenia is preparing an exhibit of the river’s treasures that will tour Europe in 2008, he says. Still, he hopes that someday Mück will hand over his items. “My heart is strong,” quips the 33-year-old archaeologist. If Mück is obstinate, “I will outlive him.”

As for artifacts still in the Ljubljanica, Gaspari believes they should be left untouched until they can be properly conserved. He searches for new objects only when he believes they are threatened—as is the case on one blistering July afternoon. Struggling into a wet suit on the riverbank, Gaspari gets ready for a dive. Water visibility is unusually good, he says, though you might not think so looking at all the algae and bits of trash.

He and his team have been hired by the town of Vrhnika to search for artifacts that could be lost when a sewage plant is built on the river. The need for a treatment plant is obvious from the stench of sulfur, and worse.

Gaspari doesn’t expect to find much here, perhaps some medieval potsherds, not rare in an Old World river. But less than an hour after the divers begin their survey, one member of his team, Miran Erič-Pac, surfaces and hands him an ax made from deer antlers more than 5,000 years ago.

“We’ve never found an artifact so old this far upstream,” Gaspari says. “It’s probably from a nearby prehistoric settlement.”

Then from the murk comes a 16th-century water pitcher painted with an aqua bird and yellow flowers that resembles a thousand replicas in local souvenir shops. Another diver hands him a chunk of stone with a decorative edge—a fragment of an ancient plate. Gaspari strokes its flat side, as familiar with its shape as with his morning coffee cup. “It’s early Roman,” he says, “around 10 b.c.”

Throughout the day, more pieces of Slovenia’s early story are found. Like other objects from the riverbed, they hint at a mysterious connection between distant generations and waters they revered. Somewhere, perhaps in the trove of artifacts in private hands—or perhaps in the river’s murky depths—is the clue that could unlock the mystery.
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On Assignment:

Writer Carol Kaufmann’s approach to covering a story about ancient artifacts is to “find the living person who’s passionate about them,” which wasn’t hard to do in Slovenia. “People are absolutely crazy about what comes out of the Ljubljanica River,” she says. “The treasures excavated from that little river could make curators of many American museums cry.”

What was your best experience during this assignment?

The water was exceptionally clear the day I dived into the Ljubljanica River. While the archaeology team surveyed part of the riverbed, photographer and dive master Arne Hodalič showed me around the river he’s been photographing for the past three years. We could see sherds from medieval pots and bits of Roman glass popping out of the mud. Rivers in the United States may have their share of Coke cans and hubcaps, but rarely anything older than, say, 1986. So I was like a kid in a chocolate factory, all wide-eyed and impressed. But the glimpses of riches that stunned this American gal were no big deal to the Old World Slovenians. Medieval? To them, that’s so yesterday.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

I’d had a baby ten months before the Slovenia trip, so I haven’t quite returned to the former me and, uh, severely underestimated my wet suit size. When we arrived on the river around noon on that blistering July day, I tried to stuff myself into the hot, miserable neoprene by jumping up and down. But the skintight material never budged past my knees. In the end, I couldn’t dress myself. The photographer held the sides of the suit together, and the archaeologist inched the zipper upward as I sucked in. Horrific. Thank God it was hot! Sweat helped.

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

Photographer Arne Hodalič and I were invited to the home of a collector who’d been diving into the treasure-laden Ljubljanica River for about 20 years. He’d been down to the bottom of the river maybe 200 times, more than any archaeologist, and had become quite skilled at finding and recognizing artifacts. His home was a museum, minus the good lighting and fancy displays. Up in a dusty attic-like room crowded with magazines, religious symbols, portraits, scuba equipment, and yoga mats were boxes of priceless archaeological artifacts. A crate full of deer-antler axes looked old—about 6,000 years to be precise. He pulled out his laptop and showed us similar objects for sale on an auction house’s website. Each ax was worth 500 euros ($650) apiece. Bronze swords, the pride of his collection, would net a cool 3,000 euros ($3,950), at least.

The Road Taken

In the middle of this global economic meltdown and political uncertainty, my brother and his wife of three years came up with a genius idea: They would buy a white Chevy van, make it a home with some “minor” alterations, quit their jobs with benefits, sell their house, and go out on the road. For an indefinite amount of time.

As you might imagine, this plan met with considerable opposition. My “keep the homefires burning” mother was so flummoxed she couldn’t speak. When she did, she could only utter “health insurance!” Friends were skeptical. Reactions ranged from “Are you nuts?”, “Where will you shower?” to my favorite “Does this involve a Great Dane and solving mysteries?” (Non Gen-Xers go here for the reference.) Me? With a full-time job, two toddlers, and a pair of obese rescue cats to tend to, I’m their biggest fan.

With no children or pets and little else to tie them to bucolic Lexington, Kentucky—their both natives of the Bluegrass State and had pretty much lived there since birth—Steven and Jill had an insatiable curiosity to see more. An unscratchable itch. Perhaps, they thought, there’s another place for us to be now. With more fulfilling jobs. More things to learn. And we’re never going to know unless we Just Plain Go.

“Are we living the American dream?” Bro wondered aloud this past weekend. “Because if we are, if we found it, there’s not much to it.”

Now these are not fly-by-night folks. They toyed with the idea for well over a year, making financial plans, paring down their earthly possessions (again, so jealous), and researching campground and desireable communities all around the country. They alerted their friends they might be parked in their driveways. They developed mental lists of places they could settle in for a few months of seasonal work, like ski communities, for earning extra cash along the way. They popped in “The Van CD,” a modern mix tape made by my musician husband for the trip. No strangers to the tent-and-outhouse crowd, these marathon-running, rock-climbing semi-pros are used to the Great Outdoors and community showers. Maybe not for months on end, but there has to be some unknown in any adventure.

They set out last week. First stop: Our house in the DC area, mainly because of the aforementioned toddlers. Not a day after they had been here, they caught the miserable viral plague we had all had. And though we do have running water and a working air conditioning system, they opted to sleep—at least most nights—in the van. I know they’ll be just fine.

I think about that restlessness many of us felt after high school or college, the traditional time for geographical exploration. It’s even becoming commonplace for high-school grads to take a year or two off before college to “find their way,” or in the day of hyper-competitve college admissions, pad the application. But why should extended travel be limited to those seminal periods? The road is always there and despite sprawl, this country still boasts wide open spaces where you can hear your thoughts and the whispers of fluttering wings. I’m proud to know real examples of those who buck tradition and plunge right on in.

We’ve all read the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” back in English lit in 9th grade and again on plaques at Hallmark, but pause for a moment, if you will, and give it another look.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Very seldom in life are we faced with the prospect of no choices. The not-so-logical road may be the best—at least the most interesting—path to take.

P.S. If you’re entertaining serious thoughts of taking it on the road, you can see exactly how a white Chevy van can be livable right here. Just click “Van Construction.”