Let the sunshine in…
HAVE A SUNNY WEEKEND!
I once tasted snow in August…
On Mont Blanc. We were in the Alps somewhere along the border between Italy and France. A few hours earlier we’d left a lush green valley with temps in the 70s and headed up the mountains into snow and ice.
Percy Shelley wrote a poem about this mountain –
“Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene…”
This is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world with thousands of hikers and skiers making the annual trek. A few years back they helicoptered a couple of outhouses to the top to accommodate visitors. Seems a lot of foul stuff was flowing down the mountain in the spring thaw. Perhaps I wouldn’t have eaten the snow had I known this at the time.
When I was little my mom made snow cream. A cup of snow, vanilla flavoring, a few spoons of evaporated milk. We were careful to scoop new snow from clean surfaces right after it fell. Then one winter we had to stop. Grownups said the snow could have traces of nuclear fallout. We saw it on the news, read about it in the papers.
During the intense nuclear bomb testing from 1961 to 1963 the US and the Soviet Union exploded bombs that injected the same amount of fallout over the Earth as would be created by more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Earlier, in the 1950s, fallout had amounted to another 5,000 Hiroshima-equivalents. Hundreds of bombs were tested in the open-air by the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and other rising nuclear powers, sending more than 400 million tons of TNT-equivalent into the atmosphere.
We had a fallout shelter beneath our school building back then and often played in the concrete “ditch” leading down to it. At recess we challenged each other to see who could jump across the ditch without falling into it. We wondered what was inside the shelter and whether everyone in the school could fit. Was there enough food? Would there be snacks and a television inside or just healthy stuff and school books? Sometimes we fussed about these small details, but mostly we were angry at the people who had ruined the snow.
Years later, when I scooped a handful of snow on Mont Blanc, I had forgotten all those fallout warnings. I was a long way from home and the old shelter beneath my school. What I didn’t know was that France had not signed the Test Ban Treaty the U.S., U.K., and the Soviet Union had signed in 1963 and was still testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Who knows what fell with the snow that summer…
I read recently that in the area surrounding the Fukushima power plant in Japan, which was damaged during the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, scientists have found mutated snowflakes. Instead of those beautiful hexagonal structures, they are lumpy and malformed. Don’t know if this is true or not. There was an interesting piece a few years ago in the New York Times about the existence of giant snowflakes “as big as frisbees” found various places around the globe, with a mission at the cost of $1 billion to locate and study them.
When the heaviest snow was falling Monday morning a grackle flew to the feeder outside my kitchen window. The bird’s black body and iridescent blue head stood out against all that white stuff. I grabbed the binoculars for a closer glimpse of the grackle’s bright yellow eyes. There are, indeed, moments of magic on snowy days.
“Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.”
~ Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Sitting on a beach in St. John…
Hiking in the British Virgin Islands…
Watching a Puerto Rican sunset…
Rocking on the front porch of a cottage in the Yucatan…
Sunning with the Iguanas in the Caymans…
Yep, I’d even settle for sitting on these rocks just to be in a warmer place.
What about you? Where are you and where would you rather be?
We were on a bird walk one morning near Chichén Itzá and saw this huge nest attached to a branch high up in a tree. Similar to a hornet’s nest, it’s called a Mayan Paper Wasp nest. According to the locals, the little critters are not overly aggressive and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them…and they’re good eating!
Wasp hunters in the Yucatan? I don’t think so. People probably come across the nests just as we did while walking in the woods. Many paths crisscross the scrub jungle like an enormous maze with no signs — short cuts to town, to work, and to the homes of friends. Families here often walk or use bicycles for transportation.
In any case, a competent Yucatecan cook can turn a paper wasp nest into a delicacy — or so I’ve heard. It’s a matter of first happening across a nest in the jungle and finding a way to “collect” it without getting stung. The best time, they say, is to wait for most of the wasps to leave. This requires patience followed by a fast getaway. Once home, the nest is taken apart layer by layer and the paper honeycomb is toasted, the roasted wasp larvae popped out, and everything ground by hand in a molcajete with a little water, chili paste, and sour orange juice. The final dish, served on a hot tortilla, is fittingly called Eék!
I bought a sisal fedora from the “professor of hats” who worked out of a local artisan shop near the Zocalo in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico. An authentic sisal hat can be rolled into a cone to fit into a suitcase or purse and then shaken out when you get where you’re going. I’d had a similar hat for years and it was great for travel. But I must have left it someplace as it disappeared sometime back. So I bargained with the professor and bought the hat. I knew I would need one for the hot, open spaces at Chichen Itza where the shade is sparse. Unfortunately, the wind picked up the day we went to the ruins and my hat kept blowing off my head. I finally had to roll it up and carry it.
I was sent to the professor by Miguel who stopped us on the street to suggest that we eat at a café nearby. Turned out it was a café I had read about in one of the guidebooks and the food was supposed to be good. We were hungry so I said okay. Miguel insisted on escorting us to the café, even though we could clearly see it from the street corner where we were standing, but we went along and he promptly seated us at a great little table outdoors overlooking Parque Hidalgo with the Gran Hotel at our backs. Then he disappeared inside the café. When he returned a few minutes later he had morphed into our waiter. This is the sort of thing that happens in Yucatan. Some folks would feel tricked; I didn’t mind. It’s a way of life.
The food was excellent – salbutes and guacamole. Guacamole was on the menu everywhere, of course, and every day and every new bowl we tried just kept getting better.
So…Miguel sent me (actually, he escorted us there after lunch) to the professor of hats, an older gentleman who had learned to make the Panama hats from his grandfather and was passing on this tradition to the latest generation in his village. All the products in the store came from the Maya villages that surround the city and stretch out across the peninsula.
There are a number of shops in Mérida with endless rooms stacked floor to ceiling (and the ceilings in these historic buildings are very high) with all kinds of handicrafts – blankets, wall hangings, tablecloths and runners, rugs, clothing, serapes, pottery, tin work, paintings, sculpture, talavera tiles and dishes and novelties, jewelry, leather products, wood carvings, Christmas ornaments, creches made from wood and clay and plastic, and whistles shaped like the head of a jaguar. The whistles sound like the big cat when you blow into them, and they were popular everywhere, especially at Chichen Itza. The first few times I heard the screams I practically jumped out of my shoes giving the Maya vendors a good laugh. Eventually, I quit jumping. But I didn’t quit shopping. Shops in Mérida were filled with so much stuff it was hard to make choices. It was like being a kid in a candy store. And, oh, the candy store! Ki’Xocolatl had the real deal Mexican chocolate that I perused on the first day in town and meant to go back and buy some treats before coming home, but I forgot. This may be the only time I have ever forgotten to do something that involved chocolate.
In any case, I bought a hat from the professor of hats, listened to his story of his grandfather and the sisal-hat-making process and how the village children are continuing the tradition, and all the while I was thinking that maybe it’s true, maybe not. But who cares. I like my new Panama hat that collapses into a cone and slips easily into a small handbag — even if it does take flight at the slightest breeze.
I was walking one morning last December in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park along a pathway I have walked many times in the past 30 years, and I saw something I don’t recall ever noticing in the past. The ground beneath a stand of trees was covered with pretty red bugs!
They were lively, moving about in clusters and clumps like ants attracted to a sweet. But there was no discarded food on the ground or anything else that I could see that would attract a bunch of bugs. The first local I ran across was an elderly man, and I figured he’d know what they were doing. But he seemed a bit hesitant at first to talk about them. Then he told me they enjoyed reproducing. On closer inspection, this appeared to be the reason for the clusters and clumps. I asked what they were called. His answer: red bugs.
In the past I would have had to wait until I got back home and had time to get to the library to find out about the pretty creepy crawlies, but all I had to do was Google. This is what I found:
1) They are Pyrrhocorid Bugs and there are more than 300 species.
2) Some species are cotton pests and they create stains that are difficult to remove.
3) They eat fallen leaves and other decaying material on the ground.
4) Some studies have shown that when they are fed paper products and some types of tree resin they will produce abnormal offspring.
5) They go by a variety of names in the tropics — red bugs and fire bugs and Spiderman bugs (for their beautiful colors) and love bugs and orgy bugs (for other reasons).
If you double-click on the photo above, you can see these guys and gals up close. They have very red eyes, like the eyes of white rabbits. (Be sure to use the “back arrow” to get back to the post.)
Today the sun is bright and the temps are up and I can hear the snow melting on the roof and running briskly through the gutters. What joy! Still, there’s a week and a half of February to go and no guarantees that March will look like spring. Easter is late this year (April 20), a long wait until the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox.
I chose to travel in December and January and was fortunate to get back and forth by air, land, and sea without any cancellations or delays. So, the timing was good in some respects. However, an end of February trip may have meant coming back to the first blooms of spring instead of ice and snow.
So, if you’re looking out the window at the white stuff and feeling a bit of cabin fever and would rather be somewhere else, do what I do. Brew a pot of tea, open a box of chocolates, and grab a good travel book.
Here are 5 books of essays that will take you round the world and back…
1) The Best American Travel Writing, 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert. I love this series and I’m excited each year to see who the next editor is going to be. Readers who like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) will especially enjoy the essays she has selected to include in this year’s anthology. You can follow David Farley 10,000 miles to Vietnam to taste cao lau — “the snap of crisp aromatic sprouts, basil, and coriander; the sublime unctuous quality of thinly sliced salty pork…the silky, smoky broth…” or go mountain climbing with Judy Copeland in the “high-canopied forests and swirling mists” of Papua New Guinea or search for El Dorado in Peru with Marie Arana. A treasure of 19 short essays, 19 exotic places to explore.
2) By the Seat of My Pants: Humorous Tales of Travel and Misadventure, edited by Don George. This anthology, published by Lonely Planet, is a great compilation of stories about what travel is really like and why a sense of humor is sometimes the most important thing to pack. Carpet salesmen in Turkey can be very persuasive, according to Brooke Neill, who tells how she ended up rolling down a hill in Selcuk wrapped in a rug. I don’t think I had ever heard Afghanistan mentioned in the same sentence as the word “funny” until I read this account of Alexander Ludwick’s visit to the Afghan Tourist Office in Kabul. And Michelle Richmond writes about a night of romance gone wrong when the lights go out in Ushuaia. I have dog ears and slips of paper and underlines all through this little book of more than 30 short tales as there are words of wisdom sprinkled here and there and scenes that remind me of my own misadventures.
3) The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux. Philosophy, reminiscences, and wonderful passages from some of the world’s greatest writers interspersed with Theroux’s own words. Twenty-seven topics with titles, such as “Five Travel Epiphanies” and “Writers and the Places They Never Visited” and “Everything is Edible Somewhere.” There are musings on the pleasures of railways and the pleasures of walking, people who never take trips alone and those who always go alone, disappointing places and dangerous places and the interesting things travelers have carried with them over the years on their journeys. One of my favorite writers featured here is Pico Iyer who says, “The most important thing always to have with me…is a book.”
4) Leave the lipstick take the Iguana: Funny travel stories and strange packing tips, edited by Marcy Gordon. From Easter Island to Ghana, from Brazil to Vanuatu this is another great collection of misadventures. There are no practical packing tips here but rather observations about things left behind and things packed but not needed and the occasional act of letting go of emotional baggage in order to lighten the journey. Every story has laugh-out-loud moments but there are serious turns, too, and a few nuggets of wisdom.
5) A Trance After Breakfast: And Other Passages by Alan Cheuse. These stories skip around the world from Bali to New Zealand to Mexico and end up back in the author’s native New Jersey. “It’s Saturday night at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the busiest border crossings in the world” — the setting for one long essay. Cheuse’s detailed observations allow the reader to be a “fly on the wall” in this rather unusual travel destination. My favorite essay, “Thirty-five Passages Over Water,” is a wonderful mix of memoir and observations and musings about real adventures — sailing to Catalina Island or taking a ferry in New Zealand or riding an ocean racer in Maine — as well as the author’s own inward journeys and discoveries. One observation from southern Mexico reminded me of my own most recent trip to Yucatan: “In the face of these pyramids and ball fields, towers and steps, and moats and sun-stones, I find myself in absolute confusion. No more looking to Europe for genius and greatness! Here was a civilization complete unto itself, with architecture as beautiful and impressive as any Parthenon!”
If you like to travel and you like to read and the snow is still piled high outside your door, brew a pot of tea, open a box of chocolates, and grab a good book!
If someone made a movie of your life so far, what would the soundtrack be like? Which 10 tunes would have to be included? The scenes/snapshots to go with them? Here are mine:
1) “Amazing Grace” — growing up singing in a one-room church in Appalachia.
2) “Stars and Stripes Forever”– marching in the high school band.
3) “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees — college; Saturday night dances at Jack’s Blue Room; 40+ years with the same partner.
4) “One Love” by Bob Marley — falling in love with the Caribbean’s blue water and green hills and red flame trees.
5) “Dance With You” from Willie and Lobo’s Gypsy Boogaloo — discovering Latin music as a new mom and feeling connected to things that matter most.
6) “Cielito Lindo” by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan — Mexican plazas, starry nights, men in boots and sequins singing mostly off key…ay, ay, ay, ay!
7) “El Condor Pasa”by Nanda Manachi — Ecuadorian Andes, wood smoke and candlelight, and the original haunting melody of the condor played in the place where it belongs.
8) “Wild Mountain Thyme” — Celtic music on summer road trips to the Eastern Shore, feeling connected to my Scots-Irish roots over time and distance.
9) Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” – memories, transitions, being “transported”… on a train from Dijon to Paris; in a gondola in Venice; walking the Stroget in Copenhagen; London’s Piccadilly Circus in the 70s; Seeing the “iron curtain” from a wine village in Austria; watching glider planes swoop into deep valleys in the Swiss Alps; driving the Autostrada del Sol, Florence to Rome; getting lost in Paris…
10)“Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens — those times when everything seems all right with the world.
Xcalacoop, like many rural towns in Yucatan, Mexico, does not have the public services offered in more urban areas. Local families, however, have gotten support since 2007 from the Maya Foundation In Laakeech (lak’ech). The foundation is a civil volunteer association committed to supporting the Mayan people and communities with private funding and a volunteer team. The foundation sponsors a number of programs, but the one I took part in was the NUTRITION LUNCH PARTY for Mayan children.
This is what I learned…
1) It takes very little effort to make kids smile. (Or, in this case, maybe I said something really loco in Spanish and didn’t realize it. I think I was telling the boys they were handsome and used the words for “pretty” or “beautiful” — terms you would use to describe a girl, and I was quickly corrected. The word is definitely guapo for this group of macho teens.)
2) There’s more than one way to cook a meal for 50+ kids. It’s no easy task.
The kids at Ixcalacoop live in one of several Student Housing Centers in Yucatan. They range in age from kindergarten through high school. There’s one dormitory room for the girls; one for the boys. Big empty rooms! I expected to see beds. Chairs, dressers, desks. Then I saw the hooks around the walls. Of course, the Mayan kids sleep in hammocks. Each child has a small closet to hold personal belongings. They live here and go to various schools in the area, depending on age. Some of them visit families on weekends; some do not see much of their families at all.
3) It takes a special person (in this case, one caretaker/”principal” and a cook) to live with 58 children and teens and make it work without utter chaos. I got a glimpse of the way things work after lunch, when the kids lined up to wash their own dishes, one at a time. They were polite, disciplined, organized.
But they also laughed a lot, played games, joked around with each other — and occasionally laughed at me.
4) Something about Xcalacoop was foreign and familiar at the same. Was I simply recalling long-ago lunchrooms full of kids? Maybe. Girls exchanging shy looks across tables…secrets being whispered…celebrations? No. It was something I only realized later. The oilcloth! Every table had a different, brightly-patterned cover. I grew up with oilcloth and my mom was always excited when we got a new roll in the store. I remember her unrolling and measuring and cutting tablecloths for customers, as well as for our own house. Oilcloth has a special scent that is not like anything else. It feels slippery but smooth, doesn’t absorb spills, and is incredibly easy to keep clean. Years removed from my own childhood, I was suddenly sent back in time by the colorful designs on the lunchroom tables. I love these connections!
This one had roses and birds and looked almost like a patchwork quilt…
5) For the first time ever, at 5’5″, my height made me stick out in the crowd. And I knew my big feet couldn’t fill the shoes of these Mayan women and others like them who work so hard in their communities to give children a happy, healthy place to live and a chance for a better life.
The Hacienda Chichen, which sponsors and works closely with the volunteer programs, is walking distance to the ruins at Chichen Itza. If you’re visiting those fabulous Mayan ruins, check out how you can make a difference in the local community.