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

Los Cararoles: The journey in pictures

During our winter stays in Chile we would invite friends to come and stay with us.  I am perhaps the world’s worst photographer but thanks to my friend, June, I can display a few photographs of the journey.

This does look like the trails of a snail – Los Caracoles!

Construction happens. Seems to be on-going and necessary too. The sign reads: Welcome to the Republic of Chile.

The lovely Mendoza River meandering beside the highway.

Snow capped mountain in the Andes.  Breathtaking scenery all the way.



Yes we go through tunnels and tunnel-like structures that are specially built to allow rain water and melting snow  to escape.  Thank goodness for that!

June reminded me of the scream I let out at the bus driver as he was attempting to overtake another vehicle on a switchback. In fact, it was not an attempt.  He did, but I did not see it as my eyes were tightly closed. You tell me.  Is this a good place to overtake another vehicle?

I remember writing after our first Andean crossing that going over the Andes was a great adventure that you do only once in a lifetime. Well I lied, because this journey with June was the fourth. On one prior crossing with our friend Mary Lou, there was some excitement as we headed towards Los  Caracoles, those switchbacks.  All of a sudden there was great hullabaloo as people on the right gesticulated and shouted ‘Esta Abierto’! ‘It’s open’ and we found out that as the bus took a turn, the compartment with the suitcases had opened and a suitcase had fallen out. We turned around and there was a battered and broken suitcase with contents spilling over the road.  The driver was relieved that it was one of theirs and not belonging to a passenger!

The scariest part?  Turning around on a postage stamp sized lay-by overlooking a fearsome gorge with a swift flowing river at the bottom.

The Meander: I have not crossed the Andes in Winter.  That will not happen. Yet travel allows you to dare.  To attempt the improbable. To face your fears.


Los Caracoles here we come

Los Caracoles  here we come

The intrepid ones have crossed the Andes by bus!  What an adventure.  These are not hills. How to describe them?  Majestic? Absolutely! Stupendous?  Sure. Verdant?  Not on this Chilean side. They are so bare in places you can see the seams of minerals that abound in them, beautiful in their own way.

We watched the birth of rivers from the snow capped mountain peaks become rushing white waters that morph into dirt coloured roaring rivers carving their way through the crags and fissures of the mighty Andes. The views are magnificent with numerous waterfalls, huge craggy outcrops bereft of sediment, and snow capped vistas so close you think you can touch them.

We were on our way from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, a city in the Andes in Argentina.   This mountain pass called the Paso Los Libertadores climbs through the Andes to an elevation of approximately 10, 500 feet to a plateau where sits the Customs and Immigration centre at the Chilean/Argentinean border. We had left Santiago where the temperature was 28C nearly four hours prior and now it is 15C.  That is fine.  Food is scarce, snacks only.  That’s fine too.  The line at Passport Control is long as there are six buses ahead of ours and you must first officially exit Chile then join another line about twenty paces to the right for official entry into Argentina.  This is  frustrating but you remain calm as you can’t do anything about it in any case.  Also, it gives your stomach some time to settle as it is the getting to this point that is troublesome, which is the understatement of any year.

Before you can get to this border you would have travelled through a section of this main road called Los Caracoles, the snails.  This road has been designated one of the most winding roads in the world. If you should see it from an airplane it would resemble the coils of a refrigerator.  The hairpin turns turn on themselves.  It is a hair- raising journey.

I am not sure what the signs that indicate the number of the curve you are negotiating are supposed to do.  Will you need to tell a friend to meet you at curve number eight up the Andes Mountain?  Are they to tell you how far you have come?  That may be a possibility except I am convinced that the curve counters cannot count.  I was getting dizzy as we climbed and I was certain we had negotiated at least a few thousand curves when I looked out the window and saw a sign reading ‘curva 21’, curve 21.  Impossible!  Where did they begin their count?   “Those are just Los Caracoles”.  So they say.  Even more harrowing is the fact that there are no guardrails.  I found I was drawing myself up whenever another vehicle approached, as if that could help.  Bert, he who is afraid of heights, kept his eyes closed while I prayed.

After three days in Mendoza it was back on the bus.  I would like to tell you it was easier.  Not at all. The Argentinean side of the mountain is quite different from the Chilean side.  The road meanders beside the Mendoza River and there are grape arbours, farms and many sightings of old abandoned mines. It is a nice slow climb.  However, this is just the calm before the storm as you have to face the downward journey to Santiago.

If you are unfortunate enough to be sitting on the right side of the bus you are treated to seeing the front actually hanging over the edge of the mountain as you hope that the wheels  will remain on the road. Take a peak downward and you see a convoy of snails, trucks, that is, snaking down.  Their cabs are also over the cliffs as they make the turns.  Breathe, just breathe.

We have spent some winters in Chile and have dared to do this round trip journey five times.  It is still terrifying.

The Meander: At the border, I noticed many of us were looking at the seven meter high bronze statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes while others looked back towards Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres. It seemed as if we were suspended between heaven and earth but I did not know which was which.

Bonding with elephants.

Bonding with elephants

“Can I touch her?”

The handler came alongside as I held my hand out to pat the baby elephant.  I marveled at the texture of the trunk and snout.  I petted it and then the handler tells me not to make any sudden movement. I turned my head and there was this huge elephant ambling up.

No need to tell me not to make sudden movements.  I froze.  Was this the mother?  What would happen if she was angry because I was touching her baby?  Where was Bert?  Still feeding a baby?  What could he do really except die with me?  My fellow tourists were calm, still wanting to touch the babies.  My open palms were suspended in air. I could not move.  The handler was softly speaking to the big mama and the baby gave me a little push with her snout. I prayed.

I turned fully and looked at mama elephant and my fear, the pent-up terror was released in a breath.  She looked at me.  Elephants are magical.  No one could be afraid looking at those eyes so full of kindness.  Eyes that spoke of knowledge beyond human ken. Instead of thinking about instant death I wondered instead if she knew I was a mama too.  She made a snuffling sound and elongated her trunk.  I opened my palm and she breathed gently on it.  I smiled.  Her baby snuffled too at my palm. I only had eyes for mama. Emotion welled.  Then she curled her trunk around her baby.  She had finished sharing.  I slowly backed away still looking into those wise eyes. Eyes that knew the futility of asking ‘why’?

The ship was docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the tour was Kandy by Motor Coach. It was a full day tour departing very early and returning late.  The tour talk on board ship made it sound very interesting and a ‘must do’ especially when we were told we may be able to feed baby elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  At Kandy the great attraction would be a visit to the Temple of the Tooth!

After a two hour drive we arrived at our first stop at Pinnawala.  Feeding time is around 9 a.m. and although I did not feed milk to a baby elephant it was so amusing to see them inhale a bottle of milk in a second.  We listened to the lecture, learned about the orphanage and the work being done and went to view the real feeding.  Leaves, fruit were already at the feeding station and we watched as the elephants came up from the river and went directly to eat.  We had just learned that most of their day is spent eating, bathing, playing and frolicking in the river.

The handlers had sticks but they seemed to be using them as guiding wands, not hurting the elephants in any way. We were told we could approach them.  The path was muddy but that did not matter.  We were all bonding with these magnificent creatures. Then came my moment.  Yes, I could touch them but I was the one touched.

The Meander:  This happened on my birthday in March 2004.  I will never forget it.  What I will also not forget is December 26, 2004 as I watched the Indian Ocean Tsunami that damaged countries from East Africa to Thailand engulf parts of Sri Lanka.  I immediately thought of ‘my’ elephants.  The news reports were unending and then I heard and saw the elephants at Pinnawala who had started to move upwards away from the low lying lands hours before the tsunami hit.  They were all safe.  Elephants are magical.


Have a Madeira M’dear…

Have a Madeira. M’ dear…

…and oh boy did I need it.  My insides were scrambled.    I was scared and my legs were shaking as I gingerly climbed down from the toboggan that had just brought us down from the Botanical Gardens in Madeira. I glanced at Bert and he was peeling his fingers one by one off the bar that he had gripped as he turned a paler shade of white as we descended.  But let’s start at the beginning.

We were on a Transatlantic cruise from Barbados  to Malaga, Spain. We had had a problem on board ship with the water and would be in Madeira earlier and longer than scheduled.   The ship docked at tea time and the island looked so inviting a few of us decided to have dinner ashore.

Four of us were lucky to get Fernando.  My journal says: “taxi driver is Fernando, about 4 ft 2 ins.  and very enthusiastic about his island”.  He was funny, garrulous, a walking encyclopedia of what to see and do on Madeira.  He recommended a restaurant DAVINAS and took us there with a promise to come back for us. This was a seafood restaurant and wonderful, I wrote. I made note too that we had Madeira wine both as aperitif and after dinner drink.

We made a date with Fernando to pick us up next morning for an all day island tour.

The island of Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal. It is small, very mountainous, flowers always in bloom.  However, if you love the beach then do not go to Madeira.  Rocks, cliffs, craggy outcroppings, wonderful hiking routes on the levadas (irrigation channel found only in Madeira) with amazing views are what you will find in abundance but no good beach.

Fernando was magnificent as he took us around the island and showed us all the sights while peppering us with a running commentary that took in history, social mores, politics and everything in between. At Our Lady of the Mountain in Monte church we saw the tomb of Charles the 1st of Austria.  We had drinks at a restaurant in a Pousada which was located at an elevation of 6000 ft. in the clouds. Literally. We stopped for lunch at Marico, El Padrilo which was surrounded by bougainvillea and where for the first time I tasted passion fruit liqueur.

Fernando then sold us on going up to the Botanical gardens by cable car and coming down by toboggan. We were game.  He would be waiting for us halfway up the mountain where the toboggan ride ended to take us to Madeira wine cellars for a talk and tasting.  Sounded good and off we went.  Bert was not too enthusiastic about the cable car as he is afraid of heights but if I am going then so is he and he was looking forward to coming down on a toboggan.  That would be fun he said.

It was this ‘fun’ toboggan ride that scrambled the insides and resulted in the death grip. The toboggan is actually a wicker basket guided by two men in boaters, white pants and special shoes…think of the gondoliers in Venice but on dry land with you in a basket hurtling down a steep hill of many curves with two mad people running behind.  All you can do is hold on for dear life and pray.  It was wonderful to reach the stop and see Fernando trying desperately not to laugh.  He did not say much as he drove us to the cellars.  Wise man.  We tasted and tasted and after enough Madeira we agreed the toboggan run was sort of ‘fun’. My journal says we bought four bottles of Madeira, two bottles of passion fruit liqueur and two bottles of Vinho Verde.  I wonder now if my insides had settled enough to drink any that night.  I doubt it.

The Meander: We have been back to Madeira three or four times, and have encouraged others to do the ‘run’, but for us once was enough.  Travel to discover, to explore and sometimes to dare.

Turtles are Moms too

Turtles are moms too – Costa Rica

It is as if a large tractor trailer has passed over the beach.  But no.  That cannot be.  Your guide points and you turn toward the sea to see a very large oval sprouting appendages climb laboriously from the water over the beach and upward above the high tide line into the soft sand.  A prehistoric creature, silent, quiet, its head slowly pivots from side to side in time with the huge flippers and legs and the stumpy tail. It looks awkward as it crawls aiming upward to choose a place. It is a slow process.

The creature, a leatherback turtle weighing upwards of 1000 pounds finds a spot and begins to dig.  It is the epitome of patience.  You want to help. But you have been warned, be as quiet as possible, observe but do not touch, absolutely no photographs, give them space and marvel at a wonder of nature.

One hundred or more eggs are laid in the large hole. She makes no sound. Just a slight movement as each egg is expelled into the large nest she has built. Her eyes leak tears which run in rivulets down her cheeks to fall in the sand.  Then tail twitching and flippers working the eggs are completely covered with the fine sand. The women hold hands, the mothers relate in an instinctive manner, bonding in the ritual of giving birth.

Job done, she turns and lumbers back to the sea.  There is a joyous flip, almost a jump as she reaches the surf and rides a wave back to the ocean. She rises and falls, now graceful and balletic in movement as the ocean welcomes her again.

We see eight more turtles come to lay their eggs on Tortuguero in Costa Rica.  We wait as we cross paths with one, yielding to her,  giving her space to make her journey above the tide line to build her nest, to lay her eggs, to do what nature says she must.

Her tears are natural.  The weeping is continuous to clear the sand from the turtle’s eyes as she digs and covers up the nest. To every woman they look like the tears, the pain of childbirth.

Moving, touching, incredible sight, UNFORGETTABLE.

The Meander:  When the eggs hatch only about ten percent make it to sea.  By law, indigenous populations are allowed to harvest a portion of the eggs and there are the poachers too. Then as the hatchlings try to get to the sea many are eaten by birds. It is just so.


Travel Language

Travel language

Bert and I are multilingual speakers in travel language.  Bert actually is proficient in seven languages and I can get by in three and a half. Travel language is different in that it means being able to greet, ask a few very important questions and say goodbye in the language spoken in whatever country you are.  Given our passion for travel we have mastered the stock phrases like  good morning, yes, no, please, thank you, where is the bathroom, a beer please, my name is… in many languages.  

Greek is Greek to me.  Here I was throwing around Kalimera,  Efharisto and parakalo with aplomb to our waiter who was so impressed he offered to teach us more Greek.  He showed us what those words looked like written in Greek.  I looked, I saw and decided this was unconquerable. I was reminded of the oft repeated verse of my high school days when I was studying another ancient language.

Latin is a language

As dead as dead can be

At first it killed the Romans

And now it’s killing me.

Now take Swedish.  Please. It has special significance.  We have family there. I love to hear Swedish spoken but I find it very difficult to learn.  My niece and I have a continuous game.  When we are together I have to say sjukhus and she has to say unbelievable.  For some reason those words are unpronounceable to us in each other’s languages.  She cannot get those syllables coming out the correct way and when I say sjukhus it comes out  ‘cookhouse’.  You should know that sjukhus means hospital. Dissected it seems logical,   sjukhus = sick house= place for sick people = hospital. The Swedish mouth says it so ‘Swedely’.  Coming from my mouth it is bizarre to say the least.  If you are sick would you choose to go to a cookhouse?

Our winter in Bali gave us an opportunity to enhance our vocabulary beyond the norm.  The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesian, but there are over 300 dialects spoken. We were in Bali so we tried to speak Balinese.  One bonus of our diligence is that  as cruisers we travel on ships with Indonesian crew and they are always pleasantly surprised when right away I greet them in their own language. I can also tell the Balinese the order of their birth by reading their name tags.

In South Africa I seem to understand more than I should in Afrikaans but not isiZulu, the most populous language. Afrikaans is similar enough to the Dutch language that although my husband did not teach me much Dutch I can maneuver through it somewhat. I do not speak Dutch but I could find my way around in The Netherlands and, surprise, South Africa.

The Meander: Travel language is minimal communication that brings a great reward.  Say the simplest word or phrase in the local tongue and the smiles get bigger, the help is forthcoming, the warmth spreads and the welcome more expansive. The effort is very much appreciated