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.

 

 

The Threat

Today we are off to The Seychelles.  The island is Mahé home of the capital city Victoria.  The port does not have a dock big enough for our cruise ship so we have to go in by tender.  On the long ride to shore there was quite an animated discussion as to how small this place was. The port talk on board had mentioned that Victoria was perhaps the smallest Capital City in the world.  Having been to Pitcairn Island I argued that Adamstown, Pitcairn Island, with a count of 54 as total population for the country was the smallest.  The question became how do you define a city?

The next observation concerned the name of this city, Victoria.  We were on a world cruise and could recognize whenever we arrived at a former British territory, because in every one there was a Victoria town, city, clock, square, street, mall, building, or market, take your pick. Another marker was the left hand driving.  It gave new meaning to the sun never setting on the British Empire.

On shore, we (two couples) hire a driver/guide who told us he would show us the entire island and take us to the best beach restaurant in Mahė for the Sunday Brunch.

Mahė is beautiful and Sergio our driver/guide was knowledgeable.  He drove up to high mountain rain forests, down into deep valleys.  He showed us beautiful beaches, amazing rock formations and pointed out exotic flowers and birds.  A most interesting sight was the Coco de Mer which is a twin coconut indigenous to the Seychelles.  They are a protected species.  On seeing the male plant (L) and the female (R), overheated imaginations brought waggish comments, titters and guffaws. We were nonchalant  having been given the heads up, er..bottoms up? by Sergio.

 

We walked through a part of Morne National Parc, once a large slave plantation.  There is a viewing pavilion which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 and from there the view was absolutely stupendous.

We drove by the very rich and secluded Baha’i compound and Sergio told us the current wife of the President was the daughter of the leader of the Baha’i   Community.  He was quite proud of the fact the Baha’i Faith was founded in The Seychelles.

It was a very hot day and we were hungry too.  Thankfully Sergio announced we were only fifteen minutes from Anse Takamaka beach where we would have lunch.     What a relief!  A gorgeous beach, an indoor /outdoor restaurant set with bright tropical linen, flowers on every table, long cold drinks being made by the bartender.  We looked over at the villas and all decided this would be a perfect place for a relaxing holiday.  But now, on to the Sunday buffet where everything looked wonderful.

“Hello my friends.  What would you like to try first?  You may come back as often as you like.” The smiling serves welcomed us and gave information about how each dish was cooked.

“Seychelles cuisine is a fusion of Creole, African, French and more.  We have something for everyone. This huge fish is a red snapper and there are four curries, many Creole salads, chicken, pork, curried octopus, different kinds of rice dishes, fried plantain, curried bat which is a specialty….”

“Hold on, curried BAT!!!???”  I asked in astonishment.

“Oh yes, they are fruit bats and they are delicious.”

I shuddered. I would pass on that dish, but adventurous Al looked at it and said:

“Curried bat?  I think I will try it.” Immediately, Peg, Al’s wife, looked at him in horror and said: “You put that in your mouth and you will never kiss me again.” It was not only the vehemence of the statement that got us laughing but the look on her face of consternation, disbelief and other emotions that defied description.  The depth of her abhorrence gave a gravitas to the statement that far outweighed the situation. It was a profound, heartfelt and dire threat.

Lunch was absolutely delicious.  We ate, and ate.  Al never touched the bat.  Obviously, he preferred the kisses.

As we were leaving, Sergio walked us over to see the giant tortoises, indigenous to The Seychelles resting in their enclosure.  They were indolent.  They are HUGE.

Sergio delivered!

The Meander:  The Seychelles will always be remembered not only for its beauty but for this experience I call the threat.  I have yet to meet someone without a phobia.  How were we to know that for Peg, it was bats.  For Peg, eating the enemy was just not on.  For me, another page for my story book of travel adventures. Unforgettable.

 

Gibraltar and Dreams

“Phew!  That piece of fish was as big as a surf board.  I can’t believe I ate the whole thing and most of the chips too.”

This was perhaps our fourth or fifth visit to Gibraltar, The Rock, and as usual we had just finished a late lunch at Roy’s Cod Plaice (sic) in the main square.  It was almost a ritual.

Another ritual was to walk to the corner where this jolly, Cockney fellow sold inexpensive watches. The first time we met he offered me one of his $10.00 watches.  I told him I had just bought one in a store just up the road. “Hahah, I bet you paid a lot more for it and it tells the same time.”  Everyone laughed.  Again we listened to his spiel before buying another $10.00 watch.  But now it was time to return to our ship.

Too full, read lazy, to walk to the shuttle service pick up point, we hailed a cab and requested to be taken to the pier. Immediately, and as is his norm, Bert started a conversation.

“Where do you think we come from?”

“America”

“No, no!  We are Canadians but I want you to guess where we were born”.  After a few tries Bert told our driver he was from the Netherlands then asked him: “Where do you think my wife was born?”

The driver smiled and said: “America”.  A laugh and then: “Wrong again.  My wife is from Jamaica.”

“Jamaica! Jamaica!  Do you know the Papine Market?”  I looked at him in amazement. “Of course, I do.  How do you know it?  Have you been there?”

“No, my lady.  My mother was an evacuee to Jamaica during World War II.  She lived in Gibraltar Camp and every Saturday she would go to shop at the Papine Market.  She always talked about her time in Jamaica, about the food, the fruits, the wonderful, kind people.  She loved it.

There were tears in his eyes as he spoke of his mother who had died recently.  He refused our fare.  He kept holding on to my hand and shaking Bert’s hand for a long time.

A year later I was introduced to Dr. Diana Cooper-Clark, a Professor at York University and Jamaican by birth. We bonded immediately.  It happened that Diana was in the middle of doing research on Gibraltar Camp, Jamaica’s role in the Holocaust and the Jewish refugees, most from Poland and the Netherlands who were housed at the Camp.

The recently published (2017) Dreams of Re- Creation in Jamaica: The Holocaust, Internment, Jewish Refugees in Gibraltar Camp, Jamaican Jews and Sephardim, is the result of Diana’s more than 18 years of meticulous research and her commitment to bring this little known piece of Holocaust history to light.  It is at once a paean to her Jamaican background, a lifeline for the survivors, education for Jamaicans and the world, a moment in history captured for posterity and recorded with love and respect for the survivors, their descendants and the Jamaicans who enfolded them in love during a terrible time in history.

Dr. Cooper-Clark took some survivors and descendants  to Jamaica for a reunion in November 2016.  Yes, they visited Papine Market, the camps and St. Andrews Girls School, one of the schools the children attended courtesy of the Jamaican government and the generosity of Jamaican Jews. She tells of the many tears shed as they remembered.  Observe Diana as she talks of the reunion and you can see this is one moment in her life forever indelibly engraved in her heart.

The Meander:  Serendipity? Coincidence?  I do not know.  Gibraltar Camp is now part of the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, Jamaica.  Many students have gone to lectures at Gibraltar Hall, have walked Gibraltar Lane and Path have seen the old ruins, remnants of the little city on the banks of the Hope River without knowing their import.  Diana has given face and substance to the place, the buildings, the people, and the times.  This is history with heart.

Just one more thing for me to do to close this particular circle:  I will be sending a copy of Diana’s book to the John Mackintosh Hall Library – the only public library in Gibraltar.  Who knows?  Maybe that taxi driver will see it and read it and fill in the gaps of his mother’s story.

The Dodo is…

We were all excited.   Next port was Mauritius and we had decided that one stop we had to make was to the Museum of Natural History to see the only complete Dodo bird in existence,  stuffed of course, as the last reported sighting of this extinct bird was in 1682.  We were a small group of world cruisers who in no time had become as thick as thieves.

“The dodo is in the Museum of Natural History right downtown Port Louis.  It is in a park. We can take either a water taxi or land taxi into town.”  There was some joshing as they were used to my having a modicum of knowledge on ports and sights.  The fact is that I go, and listen, to port talks.

Bea pointed: “There is a water taxi, but that does not look safe at all.”

“I agree. I think we have to go the land taxi route.  At the port talk there was a woman who has been here before explaining that getting out from the water taxis can be dangerous and involves climbing vertical iron steps.”  I reminded them.

We opted for the land taxi.  The drivers were not the most hospitable bunch as each one demanded we take a tour before being dropped off in town. We finally settled on a tour costing $20.

The tour was worth it.  Mauritius is quite beautiful but you have to go away from Port Louis to see that. Once we left the port area and started on the road which wound between sugar cane plantations, up to the beautiful church on the hill and drove into the country we were pleasantly surprised. We drove by the City cemetery, library, Hindu Temple and various consulates. But the dodo was our objective and soon we were dropped off in town near the park gates. Our driver/tour guide told us how to find the museum.

“I wonder why we say as dumb as a dodo?”  Jay asked.  For the first time our driver smiled.

“Because they are stupid and look stupid too!”  he exclaimed as he drove away.

(Dodo – Illustration)

The museum exhibit cleared that up somewhat.  Apparently the Portuguese named it ‘doudo’ which means ‘fool ‘or ‘crazy’.  But the dodo is also to blame for its name.  They were not used to humans so when the first settlers came the dodo were fearless and also curious.  They went up to greet these strange new creatures.  The Dutch, who were the first settlers looked at these fat funny looking flightless birds and saw MEAT!  The hungry Dutch sailors and first settlers ate them to extinction.  That is a popular theory. The more reasonable and scientific explanation  is that the rats, cats, dogs, pigs, goats and deer brought to the island by the settlers contributed greatly to the dodo’s extinction.  The dodo was meat for one and all.

There is an entire gallery devoted to the dodo which is the national bird and which you see on stamps, clothing, souvenirs of every form, coins, buildings, and a very colourful statue of the dodo in the park. Mauritians are very proud of their museum and of this bird which is synonymous with extinction and obsolescence.

We left the museum transitioning from the somewhat ridiculously sublime to the ridiculous as after only a few steps to the market we came upon outlet stores for Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren.  We knew that both these companies had factories and ergo outlet stores here in Port Louis. Here they were.

Eureka!  Jeans from Hugo Boss!  T-shirts from Ralph Lauren!. Buy, buy, buy at some ridiculous prices too.

That night on board ship, as we rehashed the day we decided that seeing the stuffed dodo in Mauritius was not a bucket list item but rather a ‘bragging rights’ travel story.  What’s the difference?  We toured Port Louis, Mauritius and the Museum of Natural History on March 30th.  Just six weeks prior we had attended the opera at the Sydney Opera House, Australia.  Now THAT was an item on all our bucket lists!

Which would you choose for your bucket list?

The Meander: Travel to discover. It is an education. I do not believe that the Mauritius Museum of Natural History appears on any top ten list of museums.  However, read about the history of Mauritius and about the extinction of the dodo and you cannot help but think about how man can and does encroach on nature with devastating results. The Dodo did not stand a chance.

Mutiny on the Bounty Lives on in Pitcairn Island

As the longboats slowly pulled away from our ship, the islanders were singing a hymn.  Those not pulling on oars were waving to the cruise passengers lined up along the open deck. It appeared that every passenger and crew were waving back.  I turned to savour the moment with Bert and saw there were tears in his eyes.

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“What are they going back to?  Nothing.” he said. I wondered at that observation but kept quiet.

Pitcairn lived up to its billing. You are in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean midway between Chile and New Zealand.  You finally realize how the mutineers could ‘disappear’ as we are in fact in the middle of nowhere. It is also the place that proved beyond a doubt that “you can find a Jamaican in every corner of the world”. Yes, the social worker on Pitcairn was English of Jamaican descent.

There were 49 permanent residents plus an administrator, his wife and two children, a nurse and the social worker who are contracted workers.  That was the total population.  Pitcairn is a British Overseas Territory  administered from New Zealand.

By name and nature they are Christian as almost half the population, Caucasian or Polynesian in appearance carries that surname and when the expedition left England to search for the island there was a Seventh Day Adventist Missionary on board who baptized them all.  Pitcairn Islanders are all Seventh Day Adventists.

We learnt  this and more from a Christian, the great-great and more greats grandson of Fletcher Christian, he of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty.  It was a most informative talk. We learnt that they were not totally isolated as they could and did have the means to connect to the internet for two hours most days.  The 45 minute talk became a more than two hour session as the questions flew.

Questions: “What do you eat? Where do you get your food? Do you make anything on the island? Where do you get any money? Who looks after legal matters?”

Answers: “A supply ship comes from New Zealand.  It also brings mail and whatever we have ordered.  Cruise ships like yours stop and bring us things like toilet paper, potatoes flour, soap. We are grateful for all that. We fish, have a few goats, pigs and chickens.  On the island we have a barter system, trading everything and sharing everything. Our administrator looks after the official duties.”

“Our biggest export for money is our stamps. We have brought our post office on board so you can be proud owners of a Pitcairn Island stamp.  Better yet, write a card to yourself and we will frank it and mail it to you.  They are being traded on E-Bay! We also make crafts that are for sale in the market set up in the lounge.”

If the Administrator was the Governor then Steve (or was it Tom?), Christian was the Mayor. There was no question he could not answer and  is often invited to speak about life on Pitcairn internationally.  He shares his fees and gratuities with the islanders. I would guess he has to pay for excess baggage after each engagement.

The current major topic of conversation concerned the recent judgment passed down from the highest court in England. The islanders were accused of incest.  The islanders lost.  They were to be jailed.  A six-cell jail was built, duly inspected and opened ready for the incarceration of the convicted incest offenders.  The jail, perhaps the best built structure on the island was being put to good if unintended use as follows:

One cell was the general activity and exercise room

One room was used by the social worker for one on one consultation

One was a sewing and craft room

One for a meeting place

One was the medical facility

One was used for its intended purpose, though it was rarely occupied.

An excellent use of resources I thought.

As the longboats rowed to the small island and Bert wiped away a tear an announcement was made that Captain Erik had given the order for some earth and sand from the island be brought from Pitcairn and placed on the aft deck.  Passengers were invited to walk on Pitcairn soil. Since we were unable to walk on Pitcairn, Captain Erik did the next best for his passengers.  He brought a little sample of Pitcairn to us. We did walk on Pitcairn soil.  Thank you Captain Erik for an unforgettable experience.

The Meander: As I stepped in the soil, I looked out at the shrinking longboats riding the waves. The singing waned.  I think I understood Bert’s tears. Do these Islanders live a life of only minutiae?  What do they dream about, hope for?  What do they plan for?  Are there any big ideas or desires to be explored or is every day distilled into just the immediate, bare necessities for existence?  I want to think they are rowing home to more than nothing.  I still ponder that.

Oh yes, we did buy postcards and stamps, mailed a few to friends and to ourselves. Maybe if I can remember where they are I will sell them on E-Bay – Nah!

A most Unusual Birthday

We were in the middle of eating an authentic delicious gourmet Indonesian dinner in Sanur, Bali. It was Valentine’s Day and Duncan, our ‘Dutch son’, met only a week previously, was celebrating his birthday.

He had asked the hotel owners Semadi and Rini, to prepare a special Indonesian meal to mark the occasion.  You can do that when your winter home/hotel is family owned, small, where staff and guests mingle, and guests are treated like family. There were eight of us including Semadi and Rini.

We were teasing Duncan about being a Valentine’s baby when I made the observation that my birthday was also a special day as I was born on the first day of Spring, March 21st.  A look passed between Semadi and Rini.  Rini sighed and when I asked what the matter was she said: “That is Nyepi, our Day of Silence our Bail New Year.  This year (1996) it falls on March 21st”.

Nyepi perhaps the most important religious and culturally significant day of the year.  When a Balinese say it is a Day of Silence they mean it.  No driving except for emergency vehicles, no planes arriving, no cooking, little or no work, no entertainment.  You stay indoors.  There are no Hindu ceremonies on Nyepi in a country which has ceremonies happening almost hourly somewhere on every other day. Devout Balinese Hindus will fast and not speak on Nyepi.

Hotels receive special permission to provide services but tourists are asked to respect this important day and so service is minimal. You are not allowed to go to the beaches. Anyone on the street must have permission from the town council to be out and about and there are security forces to enforce the laws.  I could not wait!

There is excitement all around.  The kitchen staff has been preparing meals for two days and today is March 20th.  Bert and I are up at dawn as we have decided to drive to the Mother Temple, Besakih at the foot of Mt. Agung to witness a bit of EKA DASA RUDRA the 100 year ceremonies and sacrifices. It would take a book to write about the religion of Bali. Suffice it to say that I learned as much as I could in the three months we lived there.  It is all a question of balance between heaven, the earth and nature.  There is good and there is evil.  Accordingly, good cannot conquer evil nor can evil conquer good therefore it is imperative that one respects both.

It was an excruciatingly slow but fascinating drive to Besakih. It seemed all roads led to the Mother Temple and it was a sight to behold.  The beautifully dressed and adorned young women and young men in their sarongs marching up to the temple are indescribable.  The costumes had all the colours of the rainbow and more. There were colourful umbrellas, flowers and garlands and towering headdresses.  The fruit and flowers, effigies and offerings were also colourful. To see them all kneeling, actually sitting in large groups at the temple complex was overwhelming.

Sad to say we did not see the sacrifices as we were too early and I am not sure we would have been allowed to observe them.  Also, we had to leave to get back to watch the Ogoh-Ogoh parade.  As we walked around, the Balinese people, warm, extremely friendly, happy and most welcoming explained the ceremonies and celebrations and told us we had to see Ogoh-Ogoh.

What is Ogoh-Ogoh?  Ogoh-Ogoh are giant statues of demons that represent all that is ugly, negative, and evil.  They are the ugliest creations anyone can imagine.  They are paraded through the streets the evening before Nyepi.

Ogoh-Ogoh sit on large bamboo frames, carried by young men.  For many weeks groups from the various communities have been creating them.  They are grotesque, the stuff of nightmares.  Imagine the most vivid depiction of ogres, horror, and phantoms.  They are terrifying, gaudily painted and menacing as they come weaving down the street. This is evil imaginatively portrayed.  This is their night and they tower over us.  They can be five metres high!  They will rule until sunrise.  It is a fearsome spectacle.  The parade usually ends at a field where they are burned.

The festivities now over, everyone go home to prepare for Nyepi. You must be home and silent so any negativity or evil spirit still wandering about cannot find you and enter your body to corrupt you or bring you bad luck for the coming year.  It is thought that when the evil spirits come out they will not see anyone around, decide that Bali is empty and leave.

The next day, Nyepi, is a day for introspection and meditation and silence.  For three days before this day you have cleansed yourself, you have been to the temple with your gifts and have acknowledged the evil ones and now this day you pray, fast, meditate and think good thoughts for good luck in the coming year.

My cold birthday dinner was eaten in half light. It was very quietly shared with all guests and staff in residence at the time.  Silence was broken by close family and friends including our new ‘son’, calling to wish me a happy birthday.  The conversations were very short.   It’s Nyepi, after all.

I would not have missed this for all the tea in China.

The Meander:  The festivities and Ogoh-Ogoh were far more interesting than Nyepi.   A Bacchanal is fun. Being good takes some effort.  In retrospect we  have a similar celebration but without the demons.   New Year’s Eve is certainly the night to let loose, to have fun and throw off the shackles of the old year.  Come New Year’s Day we get busy with the good resolutions.

We are still Mum and Papa to our Dutch son.

(Pixaby images)

Earthquake! Terremoto!

Earthquake!     Terremoto!

February 27, 2010 at approximately 3:35 a.m. the bed rocks. I wake up. I put my hand out to Bert: “Did you….” The walls shift to the right. The bed rolls …”feel that?”

Bert leaps straight from sleep and grabs the 21 inch T.V. from its stand. It is as if it was only a toy.

“It’s an earthquake,” I scream.  He slams down the T.V. on the bed and races into the living room.

The gut clenches. Fear is a building that moves and shakes and trembles and floors that undulate. We are on the topmost floor, the sixth.  The ceiling seems to be moving in concert with the walls. That seems good, somehow.

Pure terror grips me and I know viscerally that we will die.  Extraneous thoughts intervene:  Wills are made and our friend Maureen,  knows that if something happens to us, to give the envelope to Harry.  Oh son, oh darling, your parents are going to die here in Santiago. We love you. We love everybody!

Crash.  Sounds of breaking glass. Bert cannot find his footing as the floor does another dip and shimmies as it falls back in place. He bellows: “We have to get out.”  There is a complete discrepancy of feet as the floor rises, falls, dips and jitterbugs in a danse macabre. More sounds. This time an eerie cacophony as the entire building screeches in protest. The curtains race to the left of the track then race back.  The lights go out!  Another crash! Terror made more terrible in the darkness. There is bewilderment as the building seems to belch while steel and concrete rolled then shifted and I know it will crack wide open. Another heave. A waltz of death. How long can this last? A lull, but no peace nor release from fear.

Shouts. The security guard is knocking on doors. Terremoto! “Get out, get out”. We open the door and he screams at Bert: “Put on your pants”. It is all in Spanish.

“What is he saying?” Bert asks.

“He says you are to put on your pants and we are to leave the building”.

“I told you we should get out. Come on.”

Confusion. Is this a dream?  I seem to watch myself put on a robe. I want to go back to bed but Bert grabs my hand.  We get to the door and use the light from my cell-phone to go down six flights of stairs.

People are milling about. Some are crying, some are swearing never to go back indoors, all are bewildered and frightened.  Pandemonium reigns. We go across the street to the hotel lobby to look for three Canadians we met at breakfast.

“Go outside!” is the shouted instruction. We obey. “There they are”! Our new best friends were looking for us as we were looking for them. Jim is off to the left near an unoccupied home which is said to belong to the Allende family.  Why?  He thinks it is low enough so when it falls he will not be under it!  We join him. Wife is nowhere to be seen. We ask for her. Jim tells how she wanted to be properly dressed. Then even as he panicked she declared she had to brush her teeth. He told her to go ahead but when they came for him to identify the pieces and asked him what happened he would just tell them: “She had to brush her teeth”.

Then mother in that ‘Mother’voice that was a mixture of love, fear and exasperation for a recalcitrant child said: “Can you imagine, as I rushed towards the stairs I saw her brushing her teeth!”  We roar with laughter, the merriment heightened to near hysteria fueled by the recent panic and still present fear. Linda appears. Teeth brushed, dressed, clutching her toothbrush and cosmetic bag.

I hear one young woman telling her husband in no uncertain terms that she is not returning to the apartment.  When he tells her she had to return she says: “After what  just happened I do not have to do anything I don’t want to ever again”!  It sounds funnier in Spanish.

Still no lights. Sound of a bullhorn. Providencia (our community) Security is giving information about first aid stations, social service help, medications as needed and to watch out for thieves and vandalism. Amazing as this is within a about 15 minutes of the earthquake. We are outside.  We are told to wait for at least two hours before going back into the building.

We mill about, we talk and decide we could go back even though it is only one and a half hours since the big quake.  There are no strangers tonight, only people sharing a traumatic event. I look around and observe that people wear the weirdest things to bed or dress in a most amazing assortment when panic strikes. Then I look at myself. I am in a very nice area of Santiago, on the street, in a Chinese silk robe over a cotton nightgown, two different shoes on my feet and oh my goodness, no bra. Bert who combs his hair at least fifty times a day has a lock falling over his eyebrows and tufts of hair at the back that looks like a backwards cock’s comb, kitty corner to his left ear.

We go back to the apartment still in the dark. There are constant tremors. No T.V., no lights, no water. At 5:05 a.m. the lights flicker on and then off again. Fear makes you do strange things. I know there is broken glass and in fact I think all the dishes and glassware must be lying broken on the floor, but Bert gets busy in the kitchen.  I plead with him to come back to the bedroom where things are all in their places except the T.V. which is askew at the foot of the bed where Bert dropped it.

Bert is reporting from the kitchen: “There’s no glass on the floor. Oh, here is a tomato” “Ah! I’ve found three apples.” “There is another tomato and the plantain and a banana…….”.  All this he is doing in the dark crawling on all fours. He says he has a headache and he is giving me one as I remember the terrible crashes I heard. I think he is not going to die under a heap of rubble but from loss of blood when he steps in the broken glass. It is unreal.

Finally at 6:15 a.m. the lights come on, the water is on and the living room T.V. comes on.  The earthquake is the news wherever you look.  This is the ultimate breaking news.  I reconnect the bedroom T.V. after my personal Superman puts it back on the stand and now we have both televisions going. Bert is right, the crashing sounds were two wine bottles on the living room bar falling and breaking, some bottles and the flower arrangement falling in our bathroom and the pots and pans crashing against each other as the building rocked and rolled.  Everything else is intact. I can hardly believe it as I notice the wall to wall mirror in the bathroom is totally whole. Not a crack in it.

It is now 7:30 a.m. so we decide to get properly dressed for the day. The building does a shake, rattle and roll and Bert shouts: “Oh *#^! It’s another one. Don‘t tell me I have to walk down and up those stairs again!”  I am thinking I need to put on a bra. It is a big aftershock. We shower and dress.

Our Brazilian friend got through at 8.a.m. He has been trying to reach us. Finally his cell phone is working. He tells us how he and  his wife, were terrified and are still shaking.   We have a hysterical laughing fit as he tells of a co-worker living in his building who ran down 15 flights of stairs, scaled two walls, leapt over a fence, ran around two swimming pools only to get to the front lobby and realize he had left his keys in the apartment and he was naked except for very tight, tiny briefs. He was the comic relief for the crowded foyer as they opened the door for him. Then there were the four who were driving around Santiago and when asked where they were going said: “We don’t know. We just want to go home to Brazil”!

Bert, a Chilean, a Peruvian and I, all guests, acted as restaurant crew, setting out trays of food as the chef fills them and clearing the dishes. The restaurant staff is en route trying to get to work using any means available. They do get in and in no time have everyone settled and eating, all of us extraordinarily grateful to be doing that so very normal, everyday thing – having breakfast. There are no strangers here. Only friends.

I feel the earth shake. The hotel receptionist calls it a tremor. I look at her with sarcasm dripping from every pore. Soon comes a news report that there has just been a 5.6 aftershock. I look at the receptionist with an “I told you so” look.  I am to learn that I have become a human seismograph. I feel every tremor, every aftershock. I feel the slightest movement of the earth!  I am to learn that there were 17 tremors in the first 24 hours but I felt 21. My number is the correct one, I am positive.

I breathe. I am breathing.  Life is good!

A few facts

The epicenter was in Central Chile approximately 100 Kms south of Santiago

It was measured at 8.8 on that famous Richter Scale (Hah! More like 8000 on my scale)

Sadly, approximately 500 died most near the epicenter.

The tsunami warnings were issued but did not turn out to be as devastating as feared.

Massive infrastructure damage of bridges, overpasses and highways. The airport was closed.

It was felt as far away as Buenos Aires and Sao Paula (Poor those engineers fleeing to Brazil). It lasted approximately 3 minutes.  Eternity is three minutes long.  Who knew?

The meander:  I have a great admiration for President Michele Bachelet.  Within half an hour of the earthquake she was helping to staff the Central Emergency Post, calling for calm, being a leader and reassuring her people. Chile has one of the highest anti earthquake building codes in the world. Our friend the engineering expert tried to explain how the buildings are on rollers or some such thing.  Some things you do  not need to know, right?  Oh, yes. In 2011 we spent the winter in Chile again.

Elvis is alive and well…

Elvis is alive and well and living in Israel.  At least he was on Monday September 4, 1989.

We were excited to be going on this Mediterranean cruise as we were visiting both Egypt and Israel for the first time.  We met up with Elvis on the road to Jerusalem.  Our ship was docked in the Port of Ashdod and we had to get up very early as the tour we booked took in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  We were in for a long and full day.

Security was tight and each of the tour buses was accompanied by two Israeli soldiers carrying machine guns.  A few guests said they were AK 47 but since I have no interest whatsoever in guns they could have told me they were medieval slingshots and I would have just nodded. However, the serious demeanor of the guards and the easy handling of their weapons inspired either assurance that we were in good hands or increased  our trepidation. Take your pick.

Bert and I were on Bus #4.  We had a knowledgeable guide, a most convivial driver and the regulation two security guards on board.  We did not find the road to Jerusalem from the Port of Ashdod particularly scenic.  To pass the time we started a sing-a-long and everyone was shouting out their favourite song as we all joined in the singing.  About forty minutes into the trip our guide announced we would be stopping at a cafe for a washroom break, coffee or soft drink and to stretch our legs before we resumed the journey into Jerusalem.

Soon we were turning into a parking lot.  We got down from the bus. Elvis Presley greeted us at the cafe. No kidding.  There was a life sized cardboard cut out of Elvis at the entrance and the human version, the owner of the establishment, was right behind with a welcome complete with the voice, dress and mannerisms of Elvis.  He had a big smile, flicked an errant curl from his pompadour and in an uncanny imitation of Elvis said: “ Are you surprised?”  Talk about an understatement.

The walls, the roof, the salt and pepper shakers, the plates, the tables, the chairs, the counter, everything channeled Elvis.  There were Elvis glasses, place mats, coasters, souvenirs, recordings. None of us had ever seen so much Elvis paraphernalia in one place.  To enhance the Elvis ambiance, heaven help us, the juke-box played only Elvis hits.

Only two young and beautiful Israeli women in army fatigues seated near  us did not have an Elvis theme.  Bert, being Bert latched on to them to find some variety or distraction from the dominant motif, I supposed.  He began talking to them asking many questions, wondering where they lived to be in that cafe in the middle of the road in such a nondescript place.  He asked their names.  He was voluble and they answered not one word.  They just sat, looked at us, the bus and around the cafe.  Bert decided that they must not be able to speak English.  That did not deter him.  He told them they were beautiful in at least seven languages.  He told them he too had to do military service in The Netherlands.  No response.

Our guide was smiling as she called us back to the bus.  We stood, and so did the two women.  Bert’s mouth opened and it took a minute or two for his jaw to come back up from the floor. Now he was the mute one.  All of his seven languages had deserted him.  The two women had pushed aside the table and chairs and there,  ready for any contingency, were their weapons.  We gave a collective gasp.  One of them approached Bert, smiled at him and in perfect English said:”See, we are here to protect you.  We are on the job.  We hope you have a wonderful tour and a great time in our country, and by the way we love you too.”

The Meander:  We have been to Israel four more times and each time this  Elvis interlude with the two beautiful Sabras coupled with Bert’s loss of speech comes back to me.  A moment like this is one of the joys of travel.

Note: Elvis died on August 16, 1977