Birthday Conundrum

Our next port of call was Tabuaeran, Fanning Island in Kiribati.   Tabuaeran is the same as Fanning Island in Gilbertese, an official language of The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribash).   Needless to say, by the time we tendered into port I was already confused.   We got the information overload from a Mr. Fanning himself after whose ancestors the island was named.  It was a delight to travel with him and his charming wife and to attend his most informative lecture.

Fanning Island is like Pitcairn Island, out there in the Pacific Ocean almost in the middle of nowhere.  A beautiful atoll, a ringed shaped coral islet surrounding a central lagoon, and shaped like a foot. In fact Tabuaeran, means ‘hallowed footprint’.  There is no electricity, no piped water, no mountains and no jungle.  It is low lying just above sea level so global warming is a definite threat to its existence.   It would only take one big tsunami and pfftt, no more Fanning Island.  Residents number less than guests on ship (1900) as it is estimated there are only 1200-1500 people living there.   Its land area is approximately 13 square miles. The lagoon is 426 square miles, 7 miles wide and 50 ft. at its deepest.

Canned meats are considered delicacies.  We were met by a singing, dancing troupe of both men and women dressed in grass skirts.  There were a few older people dressed in original coconut fibre clothing reminiscent of the similar sartorial choice of Nuku Hiva.   The most significant crop and export is copra so coconut palms abound.  They appeared to be wearing coir welcome mats including headgear.  This analogy is quite appropriate as they are very friendly with a welcoming smile.  I took one look at the dress and immediately felt scratchy and HOT.   Employment and another export come from large seaweed beds owned by a conglomerate that sell the seaweed to spas and health and nutrition companies worldwide.

Diet is fruit, a few root vegetables, fish, pork and sometimes chicken.   Breadfruit is a staple, and we were introduced to a plant from which sugar is made by boiling the sap.

There are three nurses on the island to look after medical needs including dentistry and should there be a serious illness it is a long boat ride to Christmas Island 160 miles away for the nearest medical Centre.  Supply ships come every four months and if you should get really ill after one has just left then it is likely you will die.  The children seem well cared for and happy. 

We did the grand tour, crowded on three wooden benches in the small and only diesel truck on the island.  There were lots of shell jewelry and carvings for sale.

Now to explain my birthday conundrum:  Prior to 1994 The International Date Line (IDL) ran right through the middle of The Republic of Kiribati. That was a problem as the East and the West were on different time zones and if you woke up at 7:30 a.m. in the East, the next atoll over would be waking up with the same sunrise but it could well be 26 hours later or prior? It also meant that business could only be done on four days of the week. The Governor declared the IDL would be adjusted to bring Kiribati into one time zone.  That declaration resulted in the Eastern half marking Friday, December 30, 1994 and waking next day on Sunday, January 1, 1995.  This explains why Kiribati is the first place to celebrate New Year’s Day, and why the IDL jogs far right at Kiribati.  Help!

But that’s not all.  These islands also sit at the equator, so as the ship cruised along to stop at Fanning Island and carry on our South Pacific sojourn it just so happens that my birthday fell right in the middle.  So there was one day I celebrated my birthday, and soon was celebrating my birthday again and of course, there was the Neptune/Poseidon ceremony as we asked the God of the Sea to grant us safe passage and permission to cross the Equator.  Oh what a mess!  Oh what fun! Oh what a conundrum!

On my birthday we crossed the Equator so I was in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  We crossed the IDL twice so I was in the East, West, North and South of the world on my birthday.  While I tried to wrap my head around the puzzle my Bert just happily went about asking the ship’s staff what time and what day it was according to ship’s time.  He found it amusing and had no intention of figuring out anything.  It would all right itself somehow, he knew.  Sure it did, but five passengers had birthday celebrations two nights in a row neither older nor younger than a day prior or later?

The Meander:  There were times we looked at our travel account and felt we should put it to better use. Such thoughts died immediate deaths. Travel always won. We would not have it any other way.  On these cold days, I miss it so much but the memories are alive and well in my head, my heart and my travel journals.  We are grateful. No regrets!

Penguin Affair

Our love affair or maybe I should say my love affair with penguins did not have an auspicious beginning.

Imagine this.  It is February 13th. I am not subject to triskaidekaphobia.  The number 13 is just that.  It was  Ash Wednesday, the middle of summer.  Yes, we are almost at the southernmost end of the world though that would come the very next day in Ushuaia, and it is bitterly COLD.  We are in Punta Arenas,Chile.  Everyone is shivering and bundling up in all kinds of layers.

I want to see penguins. The ship’s penguin tours to Magdalena Island were all cancelled because of the inclement weather.  We had not signed on for any, rather preferring to go on an overland tour to the Penguin Sanctuary of Otway Sound with a private taxi/guide.  It is a smaller colony of some 60,000 Magellanic penguins spread over quite a large breeding ground and park for public viewing.

We bundled up and went ashore even as the weak sunshine turned to rain.  So what, we thought, we are only a hop, skip and jump from Antarctica so summer can be wintery.  We were very lucky.  There was this taxi driver who seemed to be just waiting for us.  I told him where we wanted to go.  He looked at me with a slight air of bewilderment and said: “It is wide open space and windy today.  Here in Punta Arenas, even in summer we can get rain, sleet, snow, ice and even a bit of sunshine in a matter of hours.  Today is not a good day to go to Otway”.   I said with the confidence of the ignorant.“Well, we can stand a bit of rain and we are Canadians, we know cold weather.”“OK.” He said and it sounded as if he swallowed “but it is your funeral.”

We negotiated a price and felt very simpatico towards eachother.  Bert suggested we go to his favourite bar on our return for a drink. If I was clairvoyant I think I would be able to read a bubble over Carlos’ head saying: “You’re going to need it!” However, we were becoming fast friends.  Carlos told us his wife taught English and would love to speak with us to get some practice and would we mind if she came along on the trip.  Sure, no problem.  Carlos called then drove home and there was the beautiful Ximena waiting.  She had two very heavy overcoats, both belonging to Carlos and said:  “These are for you and your husband.  There is a cold wind out at the colony and you are going to need these.”  How thoughtful.

Off we went. The rain turned to sleet.  We arrived at the Sanctuary with driving sleet and a biting wind.  The attendant asked:“Are you sure you want to walk out to see penguins in this weather?”  I answered: “Oh, yes.”  She shook her head, told Carlos to go on,that we could pay her when we were leaving and waved us in.

I did not think about this being somewhat foolhardy until Carlos opened the door and Ximena gave me a coat.  We were the only visitors.  A blast of wind rocked us as bits of ice hit our faces head on. What a walk!

Penguins!  They approached us all ready for the formal ball!  A group of about seven came toward us.  I crouched down, and mindful about not touching them, spoke softly to them. They spoke penguin and I spoke English and some Spanish and we communicated.   They came right up to me and followed wherever I went.  One came close enough to peck at my hand.  Carlos was quite surprised how comfortable they seemed with my presence and joked with Bert that I must speak penguin.   However, even with the extra coats, both Bert and I were shaking with the cold.  I looked at Carlos and he was not too happy either.  With regret I said goodbye to my penguin companions.  They followed me as we walked away.  I had the biggest closed mouth smile as I thought my teeth would freeze if I opened my mouth.

I approached the attendant with the fee ready.  She looked at me and said: “Senora, if you were so determined to see our penguins in this weather, you don’t owe anything.  Was it worth it?”   ”Oh, yes it was a short but sweet encounter, and they came to me.  It was a love affair.”  She smiled, shook her head and handed me some pamphlets.

Ximena, who had wisely stayed in the car, invited us back to their home saying we needed to have a hot drink.   At the mention of something hot Bert forgot the bar date.    We accepted and were soon chatting animatedly with Carlos and Ximena , their children Carlos Jr, Gabriel,Stefan and Paulina.  The tea was ambrosia and a panacea.  They offered a meal but that we politely refused citing the plenitude on the cruise ship.  I could not stop talking about my penguin affair. A Good English lesson, I thought.

The Meander:  I fell in love with penguins on that miserable day.   I have seen them in South Africa, In Ushuaia, The Falkland Islands, all over.  I have penguin memorabilia.  February 18th in Puerto Madryn, Argentina we went on tour. It was a marvellous summer’s day.  I was surrounded by penguins.  If only I had waited!   No, Otway Sanctuary remains my penguin first love.  Why?  As the only visitors the experience was personal.  It also had Carlos and Ximena and their kindness.   Gosh, I love to travel.

Small gift, Big Lesson (PNG)

“Lady, lady, for you.”

I looked down to see the little boy tugging at my pants and holding a small, colourful, Bird of Paradise woven basket.   It was the same little boy I had just met at his mother’s stall.  He had such beautiful eyes.  I taught him ‘Inky Dinky Spider’.    We bonded.

We were in Papua New Guinea at the port of Lae.   The cultural tour was over and my head was a maelstrom of weird and wonderful bits of information.

  • Mourning rituals: When a husband dies the wife is locked away for a minimum of six months.  She lives in a semi-starvation state and is looked after by other women in the tribe;
  • Some women make beads for each day of mourning.  Count the beads and you will know how long she mourned.  250 beads means she mourned for 250 days.
  • The MUD people are one of over 700 tribes and language groups in Papua New Guinea. Pidgin English is the only shared language.  When a mud person die they must be buried near their home.  If one should die far away a collection is taken to bring the body home.
  • Mud people have various death rituals all of which end in the body being mummified in mud in some way except for the method where the body is left out to be picked clean by vultures and insects. The bones are then put in caves or kept near the home.  The head is revered and is kept inside the home. “Would you like to meet my father?” is not such a simple question as if you answer “yes” it may result in your actually meeting his skull.  We were told that one man kept the skull of his first wife in a zippered  carry-on bag, introduced her to all and sundry and spoke to her frequently.  Needless to say such luggage now holds a somewhat macabre fascination and I often wonder what marvellous mementos are ensconced therein.

Then there are the Bird people.  Birds with plumage that defies description, flaunting colours that cannot be duplicated abound, and are indigenous to Papua New Guinea  There is an almost supernatural connection between the people and the birds.  They infiltrate all areas of life – the religious, social, political and the magical.  Ceremonies always include people dressing up with feathers, aping the stance, movement and nature of the birds they try to replicate and emulate.  Then there are the Mesmerizers, but that is another story.

Now here we were in the market, much bigger than usual as a cruise ship was in port and this little man, maybe five years old is giving me a gift.  I laughed as he tugged and held the miniature basket/purse aloft smiling shyly.  “Thank you.  Thank you.”   I handed it to Bert and got out US$5.00 from my own purse.  Before I could hand it to my little friend the mother appeared as if from nowhere and said: “No. No.  Basket gift.  No money”.  Her words did not match the look in her eyes which was one of reproach.  She said: “No pay.  Gift.”  I got the message.

Dropping to my haunches (I could do that then) I enveloped the boy, hugged him and said “Thank you” again.  He giggled.  His Mother smiled.  I looked over at the grandmother still at the stall and she gave a slight nod and a gapped- toothed smile.   I felt a shiver of shame.   If I was at home and got a gift I would not go to my purse to offer money.   Here I was, someone who prided herself as a traveller not a tourist doing a gauche touristy thing.  Unintentional, well meaning but a blunder.

Our little friend said something to his mother, she nodded, and he held my hand and said: “Come.”  The six of us in our party all followed him as he led us to many stalls.  Everyone seemed to know him.  Del made a remark that he was a born leader; a Mesmerizer who would be able to get anyone to follow him.  When we got back to his mother’s stall Bert did the right thing.  He looked at all the offerings and bought a wooden ashtray, a woven tray with two place mats, a tiny bowl rimmed with shells.  He was able to do what I wanted to do.  He gave them much needed currency in the best way possible by purchasing the goods without barter.

Our little friend accompanied by his grandmother came to the shuttle bus to see us off and waved enthusiastically as we left.  “Bye,  lady.”   We waved back until they were out of sight.

The Meander:  All the things Bert bought went into the ship’s auction.   I kept my little basket/purse.  I will not use it but it reminds me of my little friend.  It reminds me that life lessons may be learned anywhere and when you least expect it.  I have not made such a mistake again.   Every gift needs only a simple “Thank you.”

Day at Sea

I was going to write about a visit to Papua New Guinea but as I flipped the pages of my travel journal I came upon this ‘Day at Sea’ entry.  I read it and realized just why we enjoyed our cruise trips so very much.  At sea you can do as much or as little as you want and you never have to do the dishes.  This sea day is a good example.

‘Breakfast in the Lido was great as usual.  I do appreciate the service.  Bert and I just choose what we want and there is staff to take it all to our seats.   The ship was not rolling.  The sea was calm, glass smooth which made me wonder if we looked as if we needed the extra help.  No, it was a service.

Next came a trip to the library.  There is a new librarian on board.  The last one was Canadian, this one is British, a bit prissy until Bert told her I was a librarian and being Bert and my number one fan, she got a bit more information than expected.  She thawed, visibly.  Bert borrowed Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen which I did not think was cruise reading but then WWII is of special interest to Bert.  I took out Alice Walker’s short fiction collection The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.  I do like her work, this was somewhat autobiographical which drew me to it and I had not yet read it.

We went to lunch in the restaurant and met some people from the USA and a couple from Germany.  Good conversationalists all and found out that the German couple would be on board for the entire cruise too.  The ones from the USA would be leaving earlier.  I selected lunch from the ‘Spa Menu’ – light, calorie controlled, low salt and delicious.   It is so much better when someone else cooks it and all you have to do is eat it.

Bert read while I decided to go to the ‘Stretch and Relaxation’ class.  (Note:  You can tell it is early in the cruise if I am on ’spa menu’,  doing exercises and living a somewhat virtuous existence.)

We went for tea.  Really this is not needed as we are on early seating for dinner.  Where did the good intentions go?  To hell, I must presume.

Dinner companions will be with us for a short time as they are only on board another 15 days. There is Ruth, who had a birthday yesterday, Barbara and Eleanor, travel companions who live in Los Angeles and Willem, who is a dance host on board from The Netherlands.   Willem will be around for the entire cruise but not necessarily at our table.  The dance hosts are usually seated around the dining room at tables where there is a high proportion of single ladies. It did not take long for Bert and Willem to start the usual  joshing and teasing that occurs when Dutchmen meet.  That was fine by me as I found the women to be very interesting.

The evening’s entertainment was a lot of laughs.  There was comedian, Mel Mellers and a multi-instrumentalist Simeon or Simon Woods who kept us in stitches.

It is time to work off dinner so off we went to the Yacht Club and got lucky.  The OPUS Caribbean Band was playing and the party was in progress.  They are the house band and play a variety of dance music.  Just about everyone was having a great time.  At one time I was worried about Bert’s knee but he was in the swing of things and having a ball.  It does not matter if you were the world’s best or worst dancer at all.  The object was to have fun and it seemed the crowd was hell bent on doing just that.

We made plans to meet two other couples for breakfast and agreed to share transportation next day to go touring.   It should be a good day as we had all looked at the tour brochures and were interested in seeing the same sites and attractions.   We also promised others to be in the club to be back for more dancing.

We closed out the club that night.  I might have danced off dinner but certainly not the drinks.  Not to worry, we are on vacation.  Maybe just maybe I would walk it off tomorrow depending on how much walking there would be on our sightseeing tour.’

The Meander:  What a pleasant and relaxing day.  What a day of doing just what you want to do.  How wonderful it is to meet people, to find common ground, to laugh, make connections.  We have some dear friends whom we have met on our travels.   They are a very important part of our travel memories.  Travel unifies.

 

Howler Monkey Club, Slothfulness and O Canada!

There were 17 travelling companions – 12 Canadians, three from the USA, one tour guide and one driver.   We were on a one week safari followed by one week at La Costa Resort in Costa Rica.

Off the plane in San Jose and there is our Tika Tour guide, the beautiful Patricia, our driver Manuel and our bus.  We are not staying in San Jose so luggage stored, we are on our way to our first safari stop Manuel Antonio Park then to our lodge the Costa Verde.  We stop at Biologica Carara Park for snacks and are surrounded by these squawking, extremely loud monkeys.  Patricia tells us these are howler monkeys and they are found all over Costa Rica, can be quite mischievous and will spit at you.  They emit a loud, grunting cacophony.

A group swings near and I grunt back trying to ape their sound.   Our group follows suit and hence was born the Howler Monkey Club.  For the next 14 days we started the day with a howl, ended it with a howl and howled  at every howler monkey we saw.

Costa Rica abounds with exotic wildlife, enumerable birds unbelievable flora and fauna.   It is all there and accessible.  You will get a front row seat, or choose a back row, to observe mammoth crocodiles, huge iguanas, beautiful hummingbirds, toucans, macaws, armadillos, snakes and more snakes and more.

Our driver stops abruptly and points up into a tree.  Ah!  There is a sloth!  Here is the confirmation that slothfulness is in truth a deadly sin.  The sloth was going from one limb to another a distance of maybe two feet. Manuel parked so we could watch it.  We watched, and watched,  and watched.  We howled at it.  No change just s l o w as molasses movement, almost undetectable.  The sloth had moved maybe ten inches after 20 minutes.  He had not rested.   Watching its slow progress was painful and awesome.

Every day of the safari was memorable.  Every day the Howler Monkey Club got friendlier and more connected.  Every day we perfected our howl and soon Patricia was sending word ahead that she had the greatest group of mostly Canadian tourists who had become Howler Monkeys.  We were not shy going into the next lodge or inn and howling to all and sundry.  It was obvious that we were a happy bunch and that happiness spread.  Soon everyone was talking about the group of happy Canadians who were Howlers.

Then the group split with tears and laughter and hugs and promises to keep in touch as The Howler Monkey Club.  Addresses exchanged,  I was given the complete list as First President.  Our three single ladies were spending the next week at a bird watching sanctuary, others were on safari only and eight of us Canadians were on to La Costa Resort. We howled our farewells.

Patricia had called ahead to let our tour representative at La Costa know the ‘Club’ was on the way.  We were greeted with a banner: “Welcome to the Howler Monkey Club.”  We needed no encouragement.  We did our howling with gusto to the delight and no doubt the horror of some guests. We had the usual introductory talk and bought tour tickets.

The resort was wonderful and at dinner we declared that this was the kind of camping we liked.  We had had an incredible experience roughing it on safari and would not forget the amazing sights but were ready for a bit of sybaritic vacation living.

After a long day of boat riding and barbecue we were eating pizza and having beer.  Our guide told us the next stop would be at the Pirates Cove a new restaurant and inn.  The owners greeted us and we discovered they were Canadians and the business was opened only two days.   Our tour guide had added this stop knowing we were all Canadians.  Instead of howling, I started to sing O Canada and all the Howlers joined in.  The owners cried as they and their two young children sang along. They were from Vancouver, had visited Costa Rica, fell in love with the country and sold everything they owned to buy the bar and inn.

We wished them luck.  Hugs were in abundance.  Next stop Cocos Bar, and then back to La Costa where we closed out the disco.

The Meander:  Travelling is freeing and full of surprises.  The Howler Monkey Club existed for about five years.  We are still in touch with the young honeymooners.  Some years ago I read the obituary of one member and sent a card to his wife.  She wrote back a lovely letter reminiscing about our Howler Monkey Club.  We travel for moments like these.

 

Iguanas and Me

If you travel in Central and South America it is almost a given that you will meet upon an iguana or two.  I have met a few.

Bert was behind the wheel in Venezuela.   It is one of our favourite adventures: rent a car, look at a map and choose a path not yet travelled to see what we may find.   We were assured that roads leading from Puerto La Cruz were all well maintained, even the unpaved ones.   We headed out and it was a beautiful secondary road that wended its way through high grassland, rolling hills and forests.  We passed some tiny villages but were looking for a particular one which, according to the road signs was having a fiesta and rodeo.

We rounded a bend and there in the middle of the road was a magnificent iguana.  It was huge and brown.  It calmly turned its head as Bert braked and looked at us.  It spread its dewlap  which to me looked like a menacing warning flag signalling: “Beware!”  I looked out the window and said: “Shoo”.  Brilliant! Obliquely staring back at me with an insouciance that seemed scornful, the iguana just stood there.  Bert could not go forward, had no room to go around so we just sat and looked at the iguana.   Bert blew the horn, I continued with my awe inspiring ‘shoo’, we threw it a half banana which it sniffed, ate but still it stood motionless.    We too sat immobile.

After perhaps thirty agonizing minutes the iguana waved its head from side to side and with one last supercilious look strolled across the road and disappeared into the bushes.

Our visit to the Galapagos Islands was taken with immense anticipation-  Darwin, Origin of the Species, huge turtles, wildlife endemic to the islands.  WOW!  We scrambled over some rocks and came upon an imposing marine iguana just lying there, basking in the sun.   It resembled its prehistoric dinosaur ancestors.  The guide was saying this was the only lizard that can live and forage in the sea and is found only in the Galapagos.  He also said something about them sneezing salt but I did not hear much as I was just gazing at the fantastic creature that seemed to hold the patent on looking seriously bored.   Soon he had had enough sun and so abandoning his warming ritual he slid into the water and soon was out of sight.  He was ready for lunch and had gone to feed on the algae that grew on the rocks in the sea.

Now it is some years later and we are Colombia.  We were admiring the peacocks, amazingly beautiful parrots, macaws, swans and flamingos.  What a show this was.  We kept finding more and more beautiful birds with different coloration.  Far up in a tree there was a rustling.  We looked up and there was the mother of all iguanas calmly jumping from one branch to another.  This was a green iguana.  They call this the ‘common iguana’.  Nothing about it looked common to me.  It seemed that it was much too large to be jumping from branch to branch which swayed as it landed.

As I looked up, the huge lizard jumped DOWN to the ground. “Jesus, Maria y Jose.”  I thought I would die.  The guide calmly told us they can do that kind of jump without injuring themselves.  Forgive me but I was not concerned about any injury but thinking about one landing on me.  I noticed the only calm one was the guide.  I saw one fellow putting his wife in front of him.  Some knight!  Many in the group looked up to see three more calmly eating the tender shoots seemingly oblivious to the stupid tourists gawking at them in fear and trepidation.

The first iguana I ever met I ate.   It tasted like chicken?   It was being digested before we found out we had eaten iguana.   We were High School students from Jamaica in Mexico City at an International Youth Conference.  We were busy most of the day but had lots of time for sightseeing and cultural visits arranged by the conference organizers or by our host families.  This night we were to be taken to an authentic Mexican restaurant for a fabulous dinner.  The meal was absolutely delicious and we tasted many different dishes. We all loved the meat enchiladas.

On the way home we asked our driver about the great tasting enchiladas.  Our driver did not speak English and was rather silent but suddenly he spoke with animation and very fast but we all heard ‘lagarto’, ‘ muy grande’  ‘delicioso’.  I had stopped listening at ‘lagarto’.  Iguana is food.  I asked: “Iguana?”.  “Si, si. Iguana.  Es muy delicioso.”   There was a collective gasp.  One fellow threw up immediately.   That was good as we concentrated on the clean up and not the iguana meal.

The Meander:  When I consider other culinary delights I have tasted on our travels this is by far one of the least strange though it headed the list for a long time.

Incidentally, the fiesta and rodeo featured a few heads of cattle for auction, some sway-backed horses and a girl of 14 years old who had the voice of an angel. Her family surrounded her and collected tips as she sang.  We could have listened to her forever.

Alone But Not Lonely

When Ross Weber came on board he was a hirsute, grizzled, denim clad man who seemed rather diffident and cautious in his approach to people.  Soon the whispers and rumours began.  Our floating village was abuzz.

“Did you hear that the lanky, grizzled man is a multi-millionaire?”

“I heard he owned an island that he sold for $32 million.”

“He has never worked in his life.”

“He was a hermit and is just coming out into society.”

It was like a game of Gossip.  In fact that $32 million had grown from $7 million in about three days.  I was fortunate to be among those who got the truth from Ross himself.

I had not paid much attention to Ross except for the usual pleasantries in passing.  Then one night he asked a friend about my origins and she invited him to join our group which met to talk out on deck or in a cozy lounge almost every night.  He came but still does not know much about me as we were too interested in his story.  He opened up to us, speaking in brief sentences and then he said:

“I have two tapes.  They are documentaries about my life.  They have been shown in New Zealand and Australia on T.V.  If you can arrange it you can see them.”  We surmised he was either tired of talking or did not want to go into any details.  He was very shy.

Our Cruise Director was most accommodating and set up a viewing for the next sea day.  We told a few people and it was also announced through the ship’s public address system.  We garnered quite a crowd.

So here is a synopsis of Ross’ story.  Ross had a dream to own a farm.  Farmland on the mainland was very expensive.  At 27 years old he was able to buy his farm and a boat because his farm was the very picturesque Puangiangi Island off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Most small islands resemble a cup turned down in a saucer, Puangiangi however, seems to undulate in the incredibly blue waters of the Sounds.  Ross shared his island with his flock of 60 sheep and the local birds.  The sheep provided meat, which he dried as he had no refrigeration and he grew vegetables.  He also grew his own herbal teas and grapes from which he made wine.  After 47 years he sold his island and was cruising around the world for a year.   The interviewer tried to get him to divulge the selling price of his island but was not successful.

While viewing the tapes, my interest peaked when I noticed the number of books in Ross’ rustic home.  The walls were lined with books.  There were books in boxes and other reading material everywhere.  Ross said he spent more than $1000. annually on books and magazines.  Ross showed his watch which he had got with a magazine subscription.  It had no wristband so he carried it in his pocket.  He found no need to get another because: “It still works.”

As Ross fielded questions we learned more about him. He said he was never lonely; that loneliness was for those who had nothing to do.  He said he worked hard and sometimes through the night caring for the sheep, battening down during bad weather, tending his crops and doing the myriad chores necessary for one man, living alone on an island.

Ross was adamant that you should not call him a hermit.  That he was not.  He had yachtsmen and deep sea fishermen visiting him to walk the trails on his island.  A few became friends whose arrivals he anticipated each year.

“They brought me practical gifts and had tea with me.  I had friends.  I had books”.

His conversation was current with a broad view of the world.  He did have television in the last few years and one room with electricity powered by solar power, but the books were what kept him informed.  They were his constant companions.

He was asked about needing companionship. His response was that he met some very nice women but they had other interests, jobs, relatives and did not want to live on his island.  He ended with: “I just didn’t find the right one.  However, I could always find the right book.”

There were those on board who wondered how soon some unscrupulous person would try to separate Ross from his money.  Those were the ones who did not sit with him and see those wise blue eyes look steadily into yours and see beyond the surface.    When asked what would have happened to him in an emergency with a look of surprise he simply said: “You just take care or you die.”  That was literally true as for the first 10 years he had no telephone.

The Meander:  Among the many fascinating people we have met on our travels, Ross is one of the most interesting.   He is living proof that you can live your dream.  He attests to the fact that the best non-human inanimate companion is a book.  As he so often affirmed: “I had my farm.  I had my books.  I lived alone but was never lonely.”

Note:  A version of this post first appeared in the summer 2005 Access, a journal of the Ontario Library Association. 

Fishing Among Baby Alligators in Venezuela

 

“Hi.  Have you picked another tour as yet?  We are looking at this Life on the Ranch – Gaucho Day tour.  It looks interesting.”  Our Canadian pals greeted us at the tour desk

“That’s a coincidence.  We booked that one last night.  We are here to find out about rental cars as we want to drive around the countryside before going hone.” I answered.

“OK. We will book the Gaucho tour too.  That should be fun.”

Highlights of the tour were fishing with baby alligators, horseback riding, watching and learning about mechanical milking of cows, a ride across the vast ranch and a fabulous barbecue lunch at a Gaucho camp.  Bert was ecstatic with the fishing.  I was skeptical.  After all if there are baby alligators then where are the mamas and the papas?  I posed said question to the tour representative who laughed.  In my mind I am thinking, he who laughs last laughs best.

It is going to be another long day but we are up for it.  Our guide tells us that we will be taking a scenic route to our base camp and he will point out areas of interests while the driver will give us opportunities at designated areas for photos.  We settled into our seats.  Drinks were distributed.  On the outskirts of the city we started a sing-a-long.

The drive was scenic.  We had started out at 8 a.m. and were parking at the base camp just before 10.a.m.  The camp was a very large covered area which included the kitchen, a large dining area, lots of easy chairs and woven hammocks hanging from the uprights.   Gosh, they looked really comfortable.  My Goan pal and I immediately grabbed two side by side and deposited our paraphernalia in them.  We both had brought books as we were not into fishing, especially with baby alligators.

Two aluminium boats with outboard motors were on the shore of the lagoon. Nearby were four handsome Venezuelan Gauchos each leading two horses.  The plan: half go fishing, half go horseback riding and then a switch so everyone had a chance at the activities.  Eight opted for fishing, six for horseback riding and my pal and I settled into our hammocks with our books.  We were offered a tall mixed alcoholic drink by the cook who told us refills were always available or we could ask for something else.  She was mixing up a sauce which smelled so very good.  Ahhh, life is good!

Not one hour later there was a commotion on the shore.  I said: “Oh my God, I hope they did not disturb a mama or papa alligator.”  We left our hammocks and were met by swearing, wet, mud covered men and women.   Bert blurted out the story.  The boat in front had engine trouble and his boat went to their aid.   Fishing lines still trailing one look down saw an alligator which was definitely a parent not a child.  She screamed, another stood up in the boat which tipped it dangerously, another uttered some choice words which were not ‘Gadzooks’ or ‘Zounds’ or even ‘Jumping Jehosaphat’.

Afraid the boat would tip everyone else shouted at the  boatman and guide to leave the stranded boat, take them back to shore and come back for the dead boat.  No doubt uppermost in mind was self preservation.  Fortunately, in the melee, attaching a tow line to the sick boat was accomplished and both came back without fish, without a few lines, without two sunhats, one pair of sun glasses  but with fingers and toes intact, bruised egos, wet clothes, muddied feet and shoes  and a stray weed or two here and there.

As the fishless fishermen tried to come back to a semblance of normality (the tall dinks and beer helped) we heard horse hoofs coming.  “I hope they got a good ride and are coming back happier than our men.”

A woman was the first off her horse and she rushed to her fisherman husband and almost in tears said: “Please get the damn ticks off me”!  The kitchen help got busy with tall drinks and beer.  They also provided cotton and what smelled like kerosene with the advice to: “Just put a bit where they are and they will drop off.”  Even my pal and I and our fishermen husbands were employed to help though the ticks were sometimes in places best administered to by a spouse or very close companion.

My Pal and I could not look at each other.  We were being very solicitous until Bert said: “You two got the best of this deal, no alligators, no ticks, just getting drunk, reading and sleeping.”  We laughed, and could not stop.  We were not the most popular persons.

Lunch saved the day.  It was a fantastic barbecue and it seemed they expected us to eat like a Gaucho after a day herding cattle.  Good food can be a panacea. The grumbles were few, the drinks flowed, the chatter increased.  When it was suggested that it was time to switch activities there was a loud, collective and heartfelt; “NO!”  Instead, we had a fine siesta.  Most had to be shaken awake to go for the ride on the ranch that would end with the milking of cows.

Yes, the ranch was huge.  Yes, it was a bumpy ride but a scenic one and yes, we all looked on in awe as a huge herd of cows were milked all at the same time.  We were as placid as the cows as we got back into our minivans for the long ride home.  It was a shorter ride as the highway driving though dull, was so much faster than the scenic route of the morning.  As we dropped off the first group of four the tour guide apologised and said she would ask her company for some kind of restitution for the aborted activities.

“Nah, don’t worry.  I bet by the time we get home everyone would have caught a big fish, saw a ten-foot alligator and ridden across the fields like a real Gaucho.  Right guys?”  Everyone agreed.

 

The Meander: What I did not tell you?  Both my Goan pal and I had not been to the bathroom all day.  Why?  When we asked for the key to the main lodge which was designated for our use, the cook added: “Please walk in the centre of the path, as there are sometimes a few small snakes around and their bites though not bad can hurt a bit.”  I finally found something else in common with my Goan pal.  We both have snakes phobias.  “Snakes, did she say snakes?”  We handed back the key.  We no longer wanted the bathroom and the mind is so mighty we never did want it again the rest of the long day.  We just NEEDED to go. At our drop off we left the social niceties to our knowing husbands and high tailed it to the bathroom.  How do you spell relief?

Angel Falls

Before bucket lists became the flavour of the month Bert and I visited Angel Falls, Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world.  If one can back track on creating bucket lists then this is one adventure we would have included on our list.

Angel Falls is located in Canaima National Park which covers an area the size of Belgium. My book and brochures told of a place sacred to the indigenous Pemon Indians who had built camp accommodations for tourists who came from all parts of the world to see Angel Falls, though at the time of our visit you were not allowed to go to Angel Falls but could view them from boats, helicopters, light planes or take a six day guided hike to the base of the falls.

The trip from our hotel to the Simon Bolivar International airport would be about one and a half hours.  The tour included the flight from Caracas to the airstrip at Camp Canaima during which we would view the falls.  After refreshments at the camp we would take a two hour hike over a mountain, speak with a hermit, if we were lucky, gaze at spectacular vistas and get back to the camp for lunch.  We could swim, fish, have a siesta, watch some craft making, shop for souvenirs and generally relax until our plane came for the return trip.  We would again see the falls from a different perspective on the way back.

We spoke to a young Canadian couple, she from Goa he Canadian born.  All were excited to be going to see Angel Falls.

At the airport, our tour guide led us quickly to our waiting area which was quite a trek from the entrance.   As we walked to the waiting area Bert looked out the window and saw a small, somewhat decrepit airplane sitting on the tarmac.

“With our luck, I bet that will be our plane.” He said with amazing prescience.  We laughed and one German guest said: “That is a DC 3 which  is one of the safest and best  airplanes ever built and though old I would trust it more than some of the newer ones.  You can trust a DC 3 to get you where you are going.” Obviously an airplane buff he told us more than anyone wanted to know, but it was a paean to the craft so all positive.

That was our plane.  The stewardess placed an empty beer case on the ground.  That was our step up into the body of the plane.  She had an upturned orange crate for a seat placed between two straps for her security.  The plane took off with a loud back fire.  The pilots seemed to be sharing a joke. Oh, did I reveal that there was only an open curtain between the cockpit and the cabin?  The plane rose and settled with a sound that was reminiscent of a buzz saw.  I looked around.  The German seemed to be praying.  Our Canadian couple was a study in contrasts.  He was slightly green, echoing Bert’s new hue while his Goan wife was eagerly looking out the window, bursting with curiosity.   The tension was palpable.

We leveled off and immediately our intrepid stewardess came around with beer, juices and water, all part of the impeccable service.   She never ceased serving the entire two hours it took to get to our destination.  Throughout the flight the two pilots joked, listened to the radio and only interrupted the cabin chatter and prayers to announce that there was heavy fog and we would not be able to see Angel Falls on the way in but we would on the way back.  Speculation as to which was the better side to see the falls became the new topic of conversation.

It was a relief to land.  Comments varied.  The Pessimist:  “I just hope we can get back.  We are in deep jungle here.”  The optimist: “Well, if Mr. Angel and his WIFE (his emphasis) could make it down from the top of the falls then we can get out of here too.”  Me: “Yes, but it took them 12 days and by that time I would have missed my flight home.”

The scenery was breathtaking!  We were climbing up a ridge overlooking the lagoon.  We saw the hut, but no luck.  The hermit was not at home.  The local guide told us he was from the USA and that he could be around but not wanting to receive visitors today.

We rounded a bend and the guides brought out large strong plastic bags.

“Please put your bags, cameras, anything you do not want to get wet in these.  We will be walking under a waterfall.  Also we would like you to walk in single file and stay close to the mountain.”

Carrying the bags and armed with waterproof flashlights, we were led over large wet rocks and boulders,  on no defined path,  a watery screen on the left, wet craggy outcrops as hand holds on the right, and a sheer, extremely hazardous drop to the lagoon, if you make it.  The worst possible walk for anyone with acrophobia (read Bert!  We followed instructions closely except for our Goan pal who was scrambling all over the boulders, peering through the falling water, standing on the edge exclaiming about the views. Her husband meanwhile had joined the praying group.

“Were you not concerned when your wife leaned over the edge of the cliff?”  I asked.

“Oh, no.  She is a mountain goat.  She does this all the time.  She is really adventurous.”  He laughs. She laughs. I shudder.

The hike continued. Wonderful vistas all around,  but I was happy to see the Camp and lunch and the plane sitting comfortably on the tarmac.  Lunch was very good.

Our languorous, supine selves are rudely aroused by repeated back fires.  Smoke billowed from the undercarriage of our aircraft.  The stewardess beckoned.   No one rushed to board.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the weather is beautiful for our flight and views of Angel Falls.”

The views of Angel Falls are spectacular.  Unforgettable.   We were being flown though an opening between two hugs mountains.  We flew in one way, turned and flew the other way.  The pilots did some dips and turns and gave us  spectacular views from all sides.  At times you felt you could touch the sides of the two mountains on either side of the aircraft.  A green Bert soon exclaimed:

“That’s enough.  Let’s just get the hell out of here.”    Both cheers and groans are heard when the pilots announce the last sweep.

The stewardess continued her beer rounds.  We are invited to see the cockpit.   There are quite a few takers, including me.  The pilots are great.  I accept the invitation to ‘fly the plane’ while they announce: “We have a new pilot flying the plane”. Such fun.

“Did you really fly the plane?”  Bert asks.  All around answered: ”Yes.”  We laugh.  We are more relaxed.  The gambit worked.

We are back at Simon Bolivar International airport.   We find our waiting minibus.  On the way in it was quiet, on the way out we cannot stop talking about our wonderful adventure.

The Meander:  I would not want to go to Venezuela now.  I am grateful  we have been there, done that!

On our way home we changed aircraft at La Guardia.  We went from an airbus to a DC 3.  Updated, of course.  Serendipitous?

 

 

I Looove Lettuce!

It took this snowbird fleeing our Canadian Winter to make me realize I love lettuce.  The year was 1996 when we fled to Indonesia to spend three unforgettable months in Bali.

We lived in Sanur village within walking distance to the beach and its many famous restaurants.  Kuta Beach, only about a half hour away, is the more famous one. Crazy nightclubs crowded streets, restaurants, shopping, tourists, and the place to party and have fun.   Sad to say Kuta Beach was also the site of a terrorist bombing on October 12, 2002.

It was in Bali that we met our Dutch son, Duncan (See post: A Most Unusual Birthday) and together we discovered Bali.  We had some remarkable experiences among which were:

Attending a funeral rite including the burning of the body;

Visiting Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, while an important religious ceremony was in progress;

Being served tea on the beach in raised, open, luxurious Japanese tea house  tent-like structures at the magnificent hotel in Nusa Dua;

Getting a spontaneous invitation to an afterbirth ceremony and family celebration;

Getting up close but certainly not personal with a Komodo dragon on Komodo Island;

Watching the amazing carvers in Ubud bring out the most intricate art from pieces of wood;

Dining on fresh caught fish at Jimbaran Bay.

Our travels took us everywhere.  Duncan was our intrepid driver, bobbing and weaving among the multitude of motorcycles carrying entire families on one small scooter.

But back to lettuce.  When we had arrived in Bali we were given brochures full of information for foreigners.  They stressed drinking bottled water and not using ice that was not made from purified water.   In fact, in our apartment, though there was a fully functioning bathroom, we were brought pitchers of boiled water every morning to brush our teeth.

In Balinese culture there are the sacred elements of which water was perhaps the most revered.  It was the lifeblood, the cleansing power, a major highway to Nirvana.

Every rite involved water.  Everything was done by, in or near the water. Everything!

All three of us, as seasoned travellers had not drunk any water nor ate anything that was not peeled, boiled or cooked. Sure there were ‘western restaurants’ and very upscale hotels which we frequented.. However, even in those establishments I could not and would not eat anything raw. Thus for three whole months I did not have a raw salad. You can cook tomatoes, pickle cucumbers and boil all kinds of vegetables but, as far as I knew no-one yet had discovered a way to boil lettuce.

We had arranged to stop in Hawaii for two weeks on our way home.  The plane landed.  We got to our hotel and as we registered I asked about restaurants with a salad bar.  Hotel receptionists are used to a variety of interesting questions.  I was told that there were quite a few restaurants in Honolulu with salad bars.  I smiled politely and told him that after unpacking we would come for directions to one of those restaurants.

After a 12 hour flight from Denpasar to Honolulu we were tired and hungry so it was not long before we were ready to go out for dinner.  We went to the Reception.  There was someone new at the desk.

“Hi. Would you direct us to a restaurant near…”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am….

“Excuse me.  It must have a salad bar”

A curious glance then: “Sure, ma’am.  Do you want seafood, a steakhouse or one with local specialties?”

Bert:  “We are not fussy.  Any of those will do…”

“But it must have a salad bar”, I interjected.

The look has gone beyond curiosity. “Should there be anything special on the salad bar”?

Now I am wondering about that question but decide that maybe she thinks I am a vegetarian.

“It must have lettuce.”  The woman behind us giggled.  The Receptionist’s eyes blink, no doubt to contain her own laughter.  I reviewed the whole conversation in my head and thought perhaps they would decide to ask this crazy woman who seems to have an abnormal fixation on lettuce to vacate the premises.

I laughed and said: “I have not had lettuce in three months and have discovered that I really do love it. There was an undertone of relief as with a smile she said: “Then we must get you to a salad bar right away.”

The Meander:  Prior to our Bali winter lettuce was just lettuce. I ate it.  It was a triviality. However no food has ever tasted as good as that lettuce on that salad bar.  We take so much for granted that sometimes it takes loss for us to appreciate what we have.