Confronting Amazon: Adventures in Moral Cowardice

I admit it: Amazon’s got me right where they want me, and I’ve been mostly loving it. And no, it’s not just ’cause I live on an island where you can’t always get what you want. I’ve slid into loving the whole experience, from the one-click purchase to the insanely speedy arrival of that smiley package at my door.

As an author and a loyal supporter of indie bookstores, of course, I rarely buy books from Amazon. (Irony! Remember when they called themselves “Earth’s Largest Bookstore?” Me neither.) For example, if you want to buy my books, I ask that you request your favorite Indie bookstore to order them.*Click on the link to see how: The Flying Burgowski.

*This shameless self-promotion brought to you by #supportyourlocalauthor

But my own books are published through Createspace, an Amazon company. And I was given a Kindle. Don’t use it much, but when I do–hello, Amazon. And did I mention how much I love finding packages at my door?

So of course I signed up for Amazon Prime. Ooh, free movies and music too! Got a little grumpy when they raised the price, but still–ooh, shiny free shipping. Which just encourages me to one-click more often.

I do support my local stationery/office supplies/gift shop, and my hardware store. I do send most of my loved ones homemade granola for Christmas, and what clothes I don’t buy at our Thrift Shop I buy at REI.

But oh wow, I can get six pairs of garden gloves for the price of one here on-island? And they’ll be here tomorrow?

Lately I’ve become disturbed by my own rampant acquisitiveness, but not enough to slow myself down much. But now, two additional considerations are doing just that.

First, I began hearing and reading news stores about Amazon using unmarked vehicles to ship, and calling the drivers “independent contractors.” Because Prime speed is the ultimate goal, these drivers are not given routes which avoid dangerous left turns (which UPS drivers do avoid). And if an “independent” Amazon driver does hurt or kill someone, Amazon dodges legal responsibility.

Second–and this was the biggie–I learned that Amazon has been making its cloud storage available to Palantir, the data-mining company that ICE uses to target people for arrest and deportation.

According to Karen Hao of MIT Technology Review,

a new investigation, published today, sheds more light on the web of tech companies involved in supporting ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.

The report, commissioned by activist organizations Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project, found that Amazon has played as central a role as Palantir in providing the backbone infrastructure for many of ICE’s, and DHS’s, key programs. Amazon has also enjoyed a cozy relationship with the federal government that has helped it secure an outsize number of government contracts.

Hold up. Amazon is helping La Migra do its dirty work? THESE people?

ICE’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

That one hit me right where I live–or try to live. Because my first thought was, Wow, I need to join that Amazon boycott–and not just on Prime Day

And my second thought? I can’t quit Amazon! I just…can’t.

Stop selling my books? Ditch my Kindle? This is where the rubber of social activism meets the road of sacrifice. And I failed the test big time.

To salvage a few ounces of moral authority, I made two decisions.

  1. I quit Amazon Prime. At the very least, they won’t be getting an automatic $120 from me every year. And between my new efforts to avoid Amazon, and the very real costs of shipping, they won’t be getting as much of my money.
  2. I signed up for Amazon Smile, which allows you to donate 0.5% of eligible purchases to the charity of your choice. And I designated Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest as my recipient.

But I’m still not very happy about my dependence on this giant company which I’ve loved so dearly and so long. Can I get an Amen? 😦

Trying on Wine, Or, A Taste of Tasting

As thirsty human beings go, I’m pretty basic. I drink Earl Grey tea all day, every day. When I eat pizza or tacos, I like a beer. If someone offers me wine, I’ll usually accept, but I don’t tend to buy it. And I NEVER go wine-tasting.

Enter The Niece (an appropriate verb, because The Niece is an actor). Last year, as her college graduation gift, I offered her an all-expenses-paid Auntie Weekend Package. She got some choices. To name a few: The Big Apple (go to NYC! see a show! eat Reubens!); the REI (stay in a National Park inn! go hiking! see moose!); the Spa (have our toenails painted in matching colors! ummm…what else do they do at spas? thank goodness she didn’t pick that one).

Obviously the National Park one would’ve been right up my alley, the NYC one right up hers–though actually a little too close to work for funsies. But I was pleasantly surprised when she picked The Sonoma: a weekend of wine-tasting in California’s sunny autumn. (Since I wanted to visit my cousins there anyway, I got to combine the trips in a two-fer.)

Of course Fate intervened last weekend, in the form of Sonoma’s terrifying Kincade Fire. Thank all those firefighting gods, at this posting, that fire is now over 80% contained–though other fires rage in SoCal. (Hang in there, SoCal!) So we pointed ourselves south instead, and off to the coast we went.

By my count, in 48 hours, we visited a vineyard, a tasting room, a wine bar, and a tap room. Also three restaurants. Not a bad alcohol: food ratio by my lights. And I definitely enjoyed each one, especially the part where you try to summon adjectives to describe what you’re tasting–I mean, I AM a writer!–and then compare your take with the official blurb.Wine, beer--whatevs. We're tasting!

But the whole time, I was aware that the activity of wine-tasting felt very alien, very Not Me.

The fact that I was more enamored of the labels than the actual wine should have been a clue.

In 48 hours, with only a minimum of driving,The Niece and I managed to absorb a whole bunch of non-tasting-related experiences. We thrilled to the unexpected opportunity to stroke some “ambassador owls” which were visiting the vineyard just then. (The vineyard’s been having some gopher issues, so they’re teaming up with a raptor center to welcome some hawks and owls there–win/win!) Being able to put fingers into the soft fluff of such fearsome birds was a dream come true.

C’mon, pet me!

Beneath the wharf, sea lions created a free aquarium display, all day.And what’s not to love about the California coastline?

Even better at sunrise!

Because it was El Día de los Muertos, we got to enjoy some extra festivities.

While in town (and yes, slightly buzzed), we allowed ourselves to be seduced by a consignment shop featuring glitzy gowns for $40 apiece. We did not buy anything, but man–I’d forgotten how fun it is to play dress-up!

Soooo tempted! Too bad I’m such a sensible person.

Thinking about it later, that dress-up activity offered itself as a fitting (pun intended) metaphor for the entire weekend. A wine person I am not. A taster I am not. But I sure had fun trying those roles on with a dear companion!

I won’t go wine-tasting again any time soon, any more than I’ll buy a silver-sequined gown. Even for $40. But every now and then, I might “taste” something equally out of character…and I might like the hell out of it.

But then I’m going back to my Earl Grey.

 

Handwritten Recipes: Chicken Soup For The Soul Even When They’re Vegetarian

The Mate and I have been downsizing again. You know. All those boxes that we decided to keep and store, the last time we downsized,10 years ago. Did they somehow go forth and multiply while we had our backs turned?

Among these boxes are old cookbooks, ones I swore I couldn’t part with 10 years ago. But have I used them in the last 10 years? Course not. So, into the boxes with them.

That part wasn’t too hard. But then I discovered the handwritten recipes.
Specifically, I found Aunt Erma’s recipe for fish chowder. Aunt Erma died 14 years ago, at the age of 90. She wasn’t my aunt, being on the Mate’s side, and she wasn’t actually even his—more of a cousin. First, once removed? Second? In truth, though, she was more of his adopted mom. Aunt Erma lived in a small hamlet near Gloucester, MA. She was a widely-renowned artist, and a wonderful cook. And her fish chowder was LEGENDARY.

Guess what recipe I found, in Erma’s handwriting?

It even includes illustrations!

In case you’re wondering, yes–I can actually read her handwriting. But the recipe’s become less legible over the years. Last time I made it, I simply modified an Internet recipe, Erma-style, by adding more butter. The point is not the exact recipe, of course. The point is the memories conjured by that loopy scrawl, that attention to detail, the voice I can almost hear as she transcribes her kitchen magic. She’d be making sure we had some good crusty bread to eat with our chowder. And of course she’d be warning us not to forget to pre-heat the bowls, whatever we do.

So I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do with Erma’s fish chowder recipe. I guess since I’ve taken its picture and blogged about it, maybe it’s time to let the actual papers find their way into our wood stove. Maybe I’ll think about it for the next 10 years.

But I do know one thing: right now, I want to cook me some fish chowder. With extra butter, and pre-warmed bowls.

Speaking of old family recipes, handwritten or otherwise…now would be a great time and place to share one! 

 

What Are We Actively Avoiding Paying Attention To? A Love Letter.

Dear Tacoma,

I know, I don’t write you often enough. As my adopted hometown, as my official Now I Am a Northwesterner Address, as the birthplace of my children, you have owned my heart since I first met you in the mid-80s. I love your grit, the hell-no-we’re-not-Seattle chip on your shoulder. I love all your big things: big trees, big ships, big trains, big Dome. Thanks for being you.

But Tacoma, you have a dark spot. No, I’m not talking about your Superfund sites–I know you’re working on those. I’m talking more a cancer, a symptom of our New American Normal of meanness. I’m talking about the Northwest Center for Detention, run by ICE in conjunction with GEO Group, a private prison firm.

The NWDC sits right smack in the middle of your industrial heart, Tacoma. And you know it. Your City Council approved it in 2004, and allowed its expansion in 2009. You probably know too about the hunger strikes that detainees have waged, on and off, since 2014, trying to improve conditions which our House Representative, Adam Smith, called “shocking.”

This particular demonstration was led by a synagogue from Seattle.

But I know you, Tacoma. I know you’d rather not think about the over 1,300 people locked up in your heart like hardcore prisoners for the crime of trying to live and work in this country, or fleeing violence in theirs, or both.

You know why I know how actively you’re avoiding thinking about those people, Tacoma? Because I’ve been doing the same thing. I’ve been REALLY good at it. Even though I moved away in 2010, I still consider myself a Tacoman at heart, and I haven’t even been aware of the NWDC until three years ago. And when I learned about it, did I take the time to learn why there were protesters out front? Did I do anything at all?

Self-explanatory.

Nope.

But Tacoma, that moment arrives when you have to look yourself in the mirror and stop pretending you don’t know about stuff you don’t want to think about. I had that moment a few months ago. It took me a long time to act on it for a number of reasons, but this past weekend I finally did. I joined the weekly protest run by La Resistencia.

Most of these protesters are from Seattle, I’m sorry to say–not Tacoma.

I’m a slow learner, Tacoma. Now that I’ve finally made myself learn about the conditions inside the NWDC–the maggots in the food, the medical neglect, the lack of clean water, the reprisals against anyone who dares to complain–I can’t un-know these things. And I can’t not get involved, and raise my voice.

Which is why I’m writing you this letter, with deep affection. You are better than this, Tacoma. We are all better. If you are actively avoiding this ugliness–ANY ugliness–as I have done, your conscience knows why.

Paper cranes of hope, outside the gates.

PS: Please don’t just take my word for it. Here’s ICE’s own website. Here’s KUOW’s take on the NWDC, with photos. And here’s the perspective of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. 

 

Americans of Conscience Checklist: For Those Of Us Who Can’t Keep Up

I admit it. I hate calling my Congressperson. I actually have to ASSIGN myself a time to call, or a number of calls to make, depending on the issue. But after calling, I always feel good, and wonder why I had to fight so much inertia.

If this sounds at all like you, you might be interested in this website I was just introduced to by my friend Iris, the Americans of Conscience Checklist.

I signed up to receive the weekly Checklist via email. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. As it tells you on the home page,

the AoC Checklist features clear, well-researched actions for Americans who value democracy, equality, voting, and respect. To stay engaged through challenging times, we practice gratitude, self-care, and celebration.

So I get the best of both worlds: a definitive, time-based reminder that’s done all my legwork for me. All I have to do is choose one thing–boom, done. I can go deeper if I want, but that’s entirely up to me.

My own little bit for America (photo by SweetShutter, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take this week’s list, for example. It offers actions to take if you are concerned about…

…advocating for a crucial safeguard against election fraud:

[h/t Verified Voting]Call: Your two state legislators (look up).

Script: Hi, I’m calling from [ZIP] because I want security around [STATE]’s elections to be public and trustworthy. Nonpartisan experts agree that a specific type of post-election oversight called a risk-limiting audit (RLA) is the strongest and most cost-effective defense against malfunctioning or hacked voting systems. Can I count on [NAME] to support mandatory RLAs in [STATE] beginning with the 2020 presidential primaries? Thank you.

…the rights of vulnerable people, like Native American women:

 [h/t National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center] Call: Your two senators (look up).

Script: Hi. I’m calling from [ZIP] to express my deep frustration that the Senate still has not acted on the Violence Against Women Act, lapsed now for more than a year. As a result, Native American women in particular are even more vulnerable to assault and rape. I’m asking [NAME] to support the complete House version (H.R. 1585) and call for an immediate vote on it.

The checklist goes on to offer a name of someone worthy of thanking. This week, it suggests: “Thank NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for affirming employees’ individual rights to freedom of expression.”

And of course it provides Mr. Silver’s address.

Then comes my favorite part, the Good News section. Don’t know about you, but I need this stuff to keep me hopeful! There’s national good news…

A federal court issues a temporary injunction against the administration’s “public charge” rule, which would limit aspiring Americans’ ability to receive green cards should they need to utilize public assistance. 

…as well as state-by-state, like this from Vermont:

VT will allow young adults aged 18-20 with criminal charges to remain in the juvenile court system, providing them with age-appropriate services and allowing them to avoid a life-altering criminal record.

Way to go, Vermont! I doubt I would have learned that news from any other source.

Point is, my inertia doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of easy, hand-picked list of ways to weigh in on things I do care about, even if you wouldn’t know it from my laziness. If you can relate to this at all, I hope you’ll consider checking out the Americans of Conscience Checklist here.

Let’s go, America! (photo by finn, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 

Need A Little Harmony With Your Outrage? Try Windborne.

I knew this group was coming to perform on my island. One of the singers is friends with someone here. From New England, I heard. Tight 4-part harmonies. That was all I knew, till a friend sent me this video of Windborne singing “Song of the Lower Classes” in front of…yep…Trump Tower, in Manhattan. In the snow.

Now THAT is what this society needs. Immediately, I could not WAIT for that concert.

And I wasn’t disappointed. They sang in a small church, the natural acoustics amplifying the weave of their voices better than any microphone.They sang of struggle, hardship, love, longing, labor–every song a call and an inspiration, both musical and political.

Funny story they told at the concert: apparently all of the singers of Windborne had kept their day jobs; they enjoyed singing together but none thought it would become a full-time gig. But after their impromptu Trump Tower song went viral, they were more or less drafted into touring…by internet fans!

I won’t go on and on; I’ll leave it to you to check out Windborne if you don’t know of them yet. They’re actually pretty famous by now, having been discovered by music critics at the NY Times and NPR, among others. As for who they are, here’s what they have to say about themselves:

Windborne is Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Jeremy Carter-Gordon. All four have traveled extensively in the US and throughout the world with Village HarmonyNorthern Harmony and the Renewal Chorus, leading workshops and giving concerts. Windborne has toured New England several times, and in 2010 their vocal agility and power won them first place in Young Tradition Vermont‘s Showcase Competition. Since then, they have appeared at the Flurry Festival, the Shelburne Harvest Festival, the Young Tradition Vermont Reunion Concert, and have taught master classes at Keene State College.   In January 2014, AMA sent Windborne on a month-long tour to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Angola performing and teaching as musical ambassadors for the US!

Keep hope alive!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go learn some new harmonies for “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

Hashtag Shoe-Bling, or, When Life Gets Too Heavy, Be Stupid

Ever have one of those weeks where every conversation feels so weighty, you wonder that you can’t count it as a workout? I’m having one of those: Impeachment, White Privilege, Climate Crisis, MeToo…oof. Never thought I’d turn to my blog for the purposes of lightening up–but that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

Or rather…lighting up.

No, I don’t mean smoking. Don’t you know me by now, people? I mean my FEET.

***bling!***

Yes, these are mine. (No, they don’t exactly fit my healthy-living, down-to-earth, thrift-shopping style, but then again, did I mention I own camo pants? They’re PANTS. And these are SHOES. Get over it.)

Here’s how I came to own these glitzy beauties. Fourth of July evening, the Mate and I were gathered with some friends in a field, ready to watch our island’s epic fireworks show. But while waiting, we were treated to a pretty phenomenal pre-show involving kids running around like gangbusters, waving glow-sticks and high-tossing some very cool gizmos that flashed and glowed while they twirled back to earth.

And then I saw him: the child with the Feet of Fire.

A blur of incandescent rainbow, that’s what his feet were as he ran. A breathtaking river of fairy-light. I couldn’t take my eyes off them…even though I wasn’t at all sure what I was seeing. “What,” I gasped, “am I seeing?”

Luckily my 20something friend did what 20something friends do: she googled “shoe lights.” A moment later I was looking at an ad for LED shoes–the kind where the LEDs go all the way around the sole, not just at the back of the shoe.

“They have ’em in grownup sizes,” she observed.

And now a shout-out to The Mate–usually a total stick-in-the-mud when it comes to fads. “You know,” he told me, “those would be great for your night rides.”

I looked at him, thinking, who are you and what have you done with my husband?     well hey now. “They’re probably ridiculously pricey,” I said.

“Thirty-four fifty,” my friend read from her phone.

The fireworks were AMAZING that night, maybe the best show ever. But lights were going off in my mind too.

Long story short: next day I ordered the magic footwear. They came in all colors, including sensible black, but you know what–if I’m getting flashy shoes, I want FLASHY shoes.

Now you see me…

So now when I hop on my bike at 3 a.m. for the long, dark ride to the bakery, I do so feeling like a queen, with Feet of Fire. No one gets to see ’em but the deer, and the oh-so-occasional passing car…but I like to think I’ve blown their minds when they do.

Oh, the ride home in daylight? Nowhere near so impressive. And I keep having to explain to people that they’re just SHOES that I bought for SAFETY. Because of course that’s the absolute, number-one reason.

…now you REALLY see me.

Anyone else ever made a ridiculous purchase that made you ridiculously happy? Do tell.

O Canada: a Letter of Gratitude

Dear Canada,

I know you’ve had it a bit rough this last week, re-discovering your own racism and all. Welcome to the club. Gotta tell you, though–I still need to thank you for the ten days I just spent with The Mate, introducing my parents to your Rocky splendor. You may not be perfect, Canada (big surprise), but you’re still pretty stellar in my book.

Thank you for your waterfalls.

Like this classic: Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park

Or this one, coming right out of a cliff face! (Jasper)

Another classic, joining the Maligne River in Jasper

Can you ever have too many waterfall pictures?

Thank you for your canyons.

Athabasca

Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park. (Even though it was so crowded there I stopped taking pictures.)

Even your dry canyons are awesome!

Thank you for waterfalls IN canyons!

Maligne Canyon. Got pretty crowded there too…but can you blame us?

Thank you for the colors of your lakes.

The famous Lake Louise. 

Lake Agnes in Banff.

The Inkpots, Banff.

Hard to tell where sky ends and water begins. (Jasper)

Can’t…stop..photographing…water!

Thank you for your glaciers, even though their shrinkage scares the shit out of us.

Athabasca Glacier, coming off the Columbia Icefield, is still making its own weather…

…but look how far the poor glacier has receded since we first visited in the early 80s!

Thank you for your wildlife, even when it’s right beside the damn road.

Jasper traffic jam.

Big guy. I was hoping to see him fight another big guy, but he was too busy guarding his harem.

Moose are my FAVORITES. We saw four along just this one stretch of Maligne Road.

My second bear on this trip had me wishing for a zoom lens for my phone. Gotta work on that.

After the disappointment of seeing NO bighorn sheep in any of the parks, we met a giant herd on the very edge of the city of Kamloops! This is only some of them.

Thank you for the reassurance that, even when all your pine-beetle-ravaged forests do eventually burn, which they must…

(Yeah, pretty horrible to see–trees weakened by drought)

…Nature WILL know what to do.

Thank you for your mountains, which are not like any other mountains I’ve known.

Maligne Range…rock from 600 million years ago, uplifted

But on second thought–thank you, too, Washington. Your mountains are no slouch either.

The Mate at Washington Pass Overlook

And for that matter…thanks for the reminder, Lopez Island, that I don’t NEED to go to Canada to worship beauty. (But thank the gods I can! And I wish some of it for everyone.)

Welcome home.

Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VIII (Final Installment): Nightmare Crabs and Sybaritic Cuisine

And here we are at last: the final installments of my parents’ journals from their 1976-77 self-marooning on the tiny Seychelles island of Aldabra to study goats. What’s weird is, the journals simply stop. I’m not sure if that’s because they got tired of writing right at the very end, or if, in the excitement of leaving, those pages were lost, or if they’re still kicking around somewhere in the family attic.

Luckily for me, I can ask my folks that. Because, as you’re reading this, I shall be (inshallah) hiking with Martha and Peter in the Canadian Rockies. Because I have been blessed with parents who are not only intrepid, but who are also ridiculously healthy, now in their mid-upper 80s.

So if there are more journals, they’ll let me know. Till then…take it away, Dad.

8 January

What a day! Yesterday, after supper, while we were completing plans for an early expedition to DJL [Dune Jean Louis, part of the island atoll] to search for Meg, she herself arrived, hot and weary.  She also brought details on tides, which indicate that we will need to depart sooner than planned, or remain considerably longer.  With food in short supply here, and the Nordvaer due at Main Station on the 20th, when we must depart, we elected to accelerate our activities and, since it will take two tides to return to Station,  depart for Malabar on the 10th.

One of the planned activities was to catch a goat for a barbecue (the ban on killing animals excludes the occasional crab and goat), so, after dark, lanterns in hand, off we marched. The goats weren’t yet asleep, however. The first group we encountered, two dozen, a mile or so from camp, crashed along the coral into the shrubs. Chris dashed after them, while the rest of us remained on the beach to see if he would succeed in turning the animals to us. He did not. Nearly three quarters of an hour later, I was about to propose reverting to a piscorian diet [otherwise known as fish…sigh], when Chris’s lights reappeared. As he neared, the moon rose and we saw he had sprouted a second, horned head. Somehow he had singlehandedly outraced a young goat over the dark coral spiracles, roped it, raised it to his shoulders and now was bouncing back to us, lantern still intact.  [Yep: field biologists can and do sometimes eat their subjects.]

9 January

Remember to visualize this ancient coral as you read the next paragraph. Yeow.

The rescue mission for Meg aborted, P. rose at 3 am, and raced north to Point Hodoul. By 5, the turf underfoot gave and to coral and the was reduced to a slow stumble. By 5:30 it was panicky scramble. Only at the very edge of the coral ledge could a way be forced through the dense shrubbery. Shoe were in ribbons, skin shreds. But, just at daybreak, P. rounded a corner and the dramatic sight of Terre Cedro greeted him: a perfect 100 meter crescent of the whitest sand, translucent blue-green water licking the shore, 8 ibises patrolling along a cool looking grove of casuarina trees that shaded the sand, and a pair of green turtles cavorting in the gentle surf: probably like a waterbed to them. [I love this image.] There was only time for a few minutes rest, as, without food or water, it was necessary to return before the day’s heat set in. the return was a  hard slog inland, due south to Basin Flamant, then southeast. Some of the way was open, but much was swampy, or, worse, more of the dense stuff that had characterized the coastal route.  It tore off the remnants of clothes and still intact patches of skin, but P. did reach food, water, and a bed by 10 am.  M., meantime, had been helping to complete the plant transects.

Goat barbecue this eve. Meantime, we fill up on cheese and ration biscuits.

8 or 9 January. – somehow, dates have become confused.  [gee, can’t imagine why]

Whatever the true date, this is the morning after the barbecue, which, despite P.’s jaundiced attitude about eating the subjects of a study, was a great success. Harry had chunked the meat into mouth-sized cubes, barbecued them to a crisp on an open wood fire, them mixed into a peppery onion sauce. This was topped off with rhubarb and strawberries (tinned) served over rice. Sybaritic end to a long day. [I had to look that word up, and I used to be an English teacher. Means self-indulgent or luxurious.]

Today’s planned early start was delayed until dawn, when fugitive clouds made a covering shadowed our once strong full moon – too little light to go by. So, we returned to bed, sleeping until a lazy 6 am. We then ran westward to Takamata , with Meg following more sedately with canteens and and camera. We had time for a leisurely bathe until Meg joined us for the hike inland to the lagoon, along Takamata Grove, a few large trees, almost a meter in diameter  at breast height, and 20 meters tall. We passed Wilsen’s Well, the site of an old tortoise-collecting station. We’d hoped to continue back to camp inland, parallel to the coast, but after an hour and a half of crawling and beating our way through thick brush, conceded defeat and retraced our steps to the coast. The 4 miles we covered had taken 7 hours! [Remember that coral “rock”?]

Tomorrow we’ll leave Cing C. for our first site, Middle Camp, on Malabar.  From there, we hope to shoulder packs and continue on foot to another site at Anse Malabar so as to avoid the crowd.  We’re eager to get as far west on Malabar in any case.  The trail ends at Anse Petit Grabeau.  Trail  cutting there is forbidden in order to protect the last remaing Brush Warblers, which nest there.  This is the only native bird we’ve not yet seen.

Middle Camp, where we will go, will be shared with Meg and Barry, congenial enough company that we won’t mind the interruption of our solitude.  How long we stay there depends on a messenger from Station who due on the the 13th, with word as to the next likely arrival of the Nordvaer. There are rumors that we may leave on a D’how (newly reconstructed in Panama and on a round-the-world trip with its Italian owner), but when and wither bound no one knows, [ah, gonna miss that archaic syntax of yours, Dad] nor how the rumor reached here.

10 January

This was not planned to be a writing day, but weather has overruled all.  Rain is heavy, unremitting, wet and cold.  We began the day lazily and late; a slow, short run, then a stumble with packsore backs through the mangrove swamp that borders the lagoon creek where our dinghy, (My Fwanwy – a Welsh name) was anchored.  Then, tediously polling against the tide, we had a 90 minute ride across the lagoon to lovely Middle C, which had been our first Aldabran campsite.

We stayed just long enough for tea, then headed west, to Anse Malabar, stopping once, briefly, to shed excess clothes and then gasp at a school (20 or more) of sharks snorkeling about the shallows just offshore.  No swimming here.  There followed a 2 and 1/2 hour walk on the coral ledge just above the sea, abominably tiring with the constant ups, downs, dodges and stumbles the coral imposed, but a trail had been cut through the brush and seaward view was grand.

[This next section is for anyone who ever considered marooning themselves way out in the middle of nowhere.]

Then came those long delayed rains, refreshing at first, then an annoyance, finally, as the wind rose and temperatures fell, a pain. We were glad to reach our camp, on a lovely crescent beach, one of the very few on the northern shore, complete with thatched-walled, tin-roofed hut and well supplied with provender. Except: no can opener and a broken seal on the primus’s pump!!  Grrr. We were desperately cold and hungry, so, after demolishing several jars of mincemeat, jam, peanut butter, mango chutney and ration biscuits, which really stimulated our salivary flow, we pried cans open with a knife, sealed the primus with lard, and cooked tea, sausage, and carrots for our main course. Our bedding had, of course, gotten wet, but we have hopes that our gas lantern will dry things. There is nothing to do now, but to sit out the rain, though it could go on for days. Cheerful thought. P.’s shoes are so torn up, they are scarcely useable – we use almost a pair per week – except when we’re on sand, when we can go barefoot. The plastic sandals we use in water or grass can’t carry one over coral, so those shoes will have to do for the trip back to Middle Camp, planned for the morning.

Our site is noisy…There is the surf, of course, plus a whooshing blow hole; then there’s a group of boobies roosting nearby – a booby hatchery, evidently – and, finally a veritable army, dozens upon dozens, of claw-clicking, squabbling, investigating burgher crabs.They are enormous, 20 centimeter diameter in some cases, and steal anything they can carry, including our shoes. And, of course, there is the mosquito symphony. Time to duck under our nets. [Can I just say: yuck!]

11 January

At 4 a.m. we gave up the battle with bugs and crabs, the former biting, the latter swarming over the hut, seizing clothes, dishrags, rattling saucepans.  The end came when desperate howls from the kid [baby goat they had rescued], still alone in the bush, led to the discovery that it was being eaten alive by the crabs.  M. gingerly rescued him and we’ve just completed a second feed. The kid is in sorry shape, however, as are we. If only it stays dry.

9 a.m.: it has not stayed dry, an irony since we’d have delighted with the water just a few days earlier. At least one problem has been unexpectedly solved. 10 minutes ago we heard a dry bleat. We prodded our kid to wakefulness, and he replied. Minutes later, his mother appeared, walked within 3 meters of us, nuzzled him, and the two trotted off together. Where had she been since his birth? [Well, let’s hope for a happy ending for the baby goat, at least. Those crabs sound nightmarish.]

12 January

The insect plague of Anse Mal seems to be island-wide. We abandoned camp before noon, too tired and sore to continue west to Petit Grabeau as planned, and eager to be gone before finding anymore abandoned kids. The threatening skies remained dry, though the air was hot, and muggy, and again filled with mosquitoes. We collapsed gratefully in front of the tea-kettle at an empty Middle Camp, and when Meg and Barry arrived a couple of hours later, were restored. A nap in a relatively insect-proof tent also helped.

The hot, wet weather has clearly produced wide-spread insect hatches. The only thing comparable in our experience were the clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies in Northern Ontario in mid-June. We recalled E.T. Seton’s census method:  clap your right hand over the back of the left. If, after an exposure of 5 minutes, the number of squashed mosquitos can be counted, your situation is still moderately comfortable.  A 5 second exposure  of a washed left hand had this morning produced a count of 27. We decided the hut was uninhabitable. [yuck, yuck, YUCK.]

Dinner tonight was a stewed grouper of close to 10 kilos. P. had fished from a ledge over the lagoon, and in minutes had hooked an enormous grouper, easily 20 kilograms, but could land him. As soon as he had begun raising him from the water, the hook straightened and he slip free. P. had waded around from the beach while Meg and M. held the line, thinking to support him from underneath, a when a large shark swam by, efforts of that sort were abandoned. The shark, fortunately, was a Blacktip, rather than the more aggressive and less common Whites.  But, minutes later, the 2cnd, smaller catch was made, which was a more reasonable size for our small party.  Grouper, however, are the least “bon” of the many fish we’ve had here, so next time we’ll move to the ocean side and try for snapper. But, as the Grouper was accompanied by fresh picked coconut, popcorn, tinned strawberries, and brandy, our dinner had to be rated as elegant. [Is it just me, or are they becoming more fixated on food? I get that!]

13 January

This makes a full month since our arrival. We begin to feel and resemble old hands, tan, slim, scratched, bruised and torn.  But, still less skilled than the natives, except for running over the champignon. Yesterday’s fishing expedition was frustrated by snagged hooks, then sharks which repeatedly cut the line. When P. moved to the lagoon side, it was met by 9 groupers, lined up side by side like so many trained seals. They rose in unison as the bait was lowered, their mouths protruding from the water, almost drooling. [Really?! Fish drool?] But, we did not want another grouper. After one of the smaller ones had twice impaled himself, been hauled out, freed, and tossed back, P. gave up hope of finding other fish. On the third time it took the hook, it went into the curry pot. However, that had been too heavily curried for M. and Meg’s taste, so P. did have to make one last effort, which resulted in the catch of an eight-o’clock, that was filleted sans curry.  P. and the crabs shared the curry pot’s contents.

It’s been a blank day, goatwise, with about 1/0 seconds of contact.  We’ll try again just before sundown. While Meg and M. were on their shifts, P. spend the afternoon constructing a proper, windproof fireplace and oven, which we then tested with a barbecue of sausage, mushrooms (tinned) and coconut, plus “dampers”, a flour and water dough rolled over sticks and browned. [Definitely ready to go home, I’d say.] Quite satisfactory. Tomorrow, we’ll try the oven, though the bread will either be raised by airborn yeasts or unleavened. There may even be time to fish again, which was not possible today as the tide was high while we were free to do so, and they don’t take our bait then. But bread, fish, and coconut  are all very good roasted.

And there the journals end–with food, not a bad last word! Nothing about the journey home. Which matches the equal blanks shared by my 17 year-old sister and 15 year-old self, waiting to hear from our parents. All I remember from that time is a phone call “patched through,” as they used to say, from Tel Aviv, where our folks stopped to visit cousins on their long trip home.

And then…they came home to boring ol’ Durham, North Carolina, and life went on. As it does. This adventure seems like a dream to me now, a secondhand dream. Wonder how it feels to them?

Mom, do you remember what this feels like? That tortoise probably does.

But lucky me: I can just ask. Thank you, powers that be, for my amazing parents.

 

 

Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VII: Blistered Bottoms and Happy New Year

Welcome to the penultimate (as my dad would say, instead of second-to-last) installment of my intrepid parents’ Aldabra Journals. It’s been fun for me, re-reading these after 43 years, but I’m starting to feel eager to take my blog back to the present. With that in mind, I’ve edited the final two weeks of entries, cutting longer sections about goat-watching to highlight those which portray most vividly life on a tiny atoll.

See if you can spot my Martha and Peter’s evolving attitudes! (I may have left a few colorful hints.)

30 December

We rose before dawn to retrace our steps to where we’d spotted goats last eve…Now we can have breakfast and then try to catch some fish, a chore that Harry made seem easy but for which we are clearly less capable. Tides are such as to preclude pool fishing, and fear of sharks keep us from surf casting, so P. balanced his way out to an out-hanging shelf of coral from which a line could be dropped into the water. Between the very small fish, which merely nibbled the bait to bits and the giants which swallowed bait, hook and all, then spat out the indigestible portion, P. made no contribution to the dinner pot.  And the swarms of moray eels did not encourage a consoling, cooling dip either. Frustrating. M. wisely kept cool with a book in the hut.

31 December

Just now we’re dressing wounds – coral cuts on feet and ugly burns from the blister beetles, a flying cockroach-shaped beast that is attracted by smoke and releases a highly caustic, inflammatory (and then infectious) substance when squashed or smitten. Once done, we plan to jog around our clearing or perhaps use our jump-ropes: dune running is too strenuous for us just now, besides which it accelerates dune erosion.[Remember: marathoner parents!]  As you may divine, we are slowly succumbing to tropical lassitudinitis. Fortunately there is no excess of either dainty snacks nor alcohol, so we hope to avoid the otherwise inevitable tropical belly.  We do have one bottle of rum along, for medicinal purposes, of course, and will use it this evening as an excuse for some kind of rum punch.  

Just back from a 5 hour search that produced no goats, but, as usual, no small number of other sights. First, a green turtle hatchling that was headed into the sand.  We turned it surfward a meter from the water and watched it swim off, hoping it would avoid the large shark which was patrolling the beach. Next was some feces that was from a carnivore, confirming fears that a beast we’d spied earlier might have been a dog. The last sighting was two years ago, so we’d hoped none remained. Then, while standing on a ledge overhanging the water, we watched two large rays, white spots on their sleek black wings, cavort, like playful aquatic butterflies. Probably they were mating, or do rays play? Graceful creatures, for sure. [Nice to see some of that awe still flowing.] Finally, we watched a trio of giant green turtles, 10-15 meters off-shore, two of them copulating while the third tried to intervene. A miracle that the female did not drown. We held our breaths in sympathy. [:) ]

Supper now, and, late as it is, to bed after. No New Year celebration this year, but, then, we’ve not stayed up until midnight for a quite a few years. Happy New Year. [1977]

Dad goat-watching on Dune Jean Louis

1 January

Today has been a maximally lazy one. Our plans to beat the bushes for goats were shelved when M.’s morning watch from our tower was rewarded with a sighting of one of Meg’s herds. Rather than risk spooking them, we elected to see if they were back to stay, a decision reinforced by the excessive heat.

The sky is cloudless and this year’s rainy season has yet to materialize…That means no fresh water bathing, and  drinks are foul-tasting, even when disguised with tannins, caffeine and alcohol. Bathing is also discouraged by the blazing sun as M. has a badly blistered bottom: it was unaccustomed to exposure (P. had passed through the blistered stage earlier).

We’ve passed the day dozing, reading, and timing the incubation intervals of our resident sunbird, now with two eggs. The male, who’d helped with nest construction, now no longer enters the hut, though he accompanies the female on flights around camp whenever she leaves the nest (which is often), and sings from atop our nearby tent or clothes-rack bush. The nest, a hanging, globular affair was badly attached and had we not secured it with twine would surely have fallen. Perhaps this pair is inexperienced. [says the very married man]

2 January

We lay abed an extra 30 minutes this A.M., not commencing our watch until 6.  Even so, it was darker than night, with heavy black clouds blotting the lagoon. It did finally lighten and we saw some goats at a distance. Then we breakfasted, and as we afterward started on a fishing expedition, were submerged in a long overdue deluge. Wet and cold, we returned to our hut for shoes and exploited the cooler temperature for a run. M. took off on an 800 meter circuit across the tortoise -cropped turf, which winds its way around coral fragments, while P. took advantage of the tortoises being a good height to practice hurdlers’ strides. [I adore the image this presents!] Once the shower ended, we used the older water, now too foul to drink, for a luxurious sponge bath. “Clean” is relative, but by Aldabran standards we are now squeaky clean, even if still sandy.

3 January

Our last full day here alone dawned darkly, and thirty minutes after stationing ourselves in our watchtower, 3 meters high, lightning frightened us down. We lasted a bit longer atop the dune, but saw no more more goats. Then, the rains came, but lightly enough that P. had a run, while M. decided to laze about until low tide. Our fish expedition this time was successful, 4 beauties hand-caught in tide pools, so M. is now prepping them for a mid-day curry, an attractive prospect on an unusually grey, though still relatively dry day.

Incidentally, ibises, at least the sacred sort, like cooked oatmeal. Turnstones don’t.Tortoises like anything, from margarine to fish soup. [Stop the scientific presses!]

Not actually sure where this is, but the photo’s too dramatic not to use

4 January

Another squally morning, strong winds, though now shifted to the SW. Impossible to see goats, even had they been present. Now, sun and rain are playing a chasing game, and it remains muggy and uncomfortably hot.

Meg was to have arrived this am, with fresh supplies, but has not materialized. Our coffee will be gone by tonight, and many other stocks are nearly gone. Worst, both primus stoves are on the fritz and totally nonfunctional. There’s too much wind for a wood fire. So, we will take inventory and pack tonight, knock down the tent at first light tomorrow, and head east to Cinq Cases. Should there be no tent or hut space for us there, we should still at least be able to get some food to tide us over. The tidepool that has produced most of our fish has been exhausted. Other pools are shared by Moray eels of considerable size, so we left the fish in them to the eels. It’s too great a distance for a simple roundtrip to Cinq C. for food: about 12 miles, but the maximum speed possible on this terrain is about 2 miles/hour.

Hard to imagine a more ordinary/extraordinary afternoon than we’ve experienced: M. lolling in her chair, book in lap, coffee to hand; P. at his desk, coffee (imitation, actually) at his side, too. Our beasties are grazing the pasture by the door, or napping in the shade. The shade, however, is not provided by proud Piedmont oaks, but fronds of Pandamus palms, which are the roof and walls of our hut. And, M.’s chair is a single canvas sling, while P.’s desk a crude board with stool. The floor of our “office” is sand, fresh and white, and the grazers are not our usual equine pets, but those ungainly giant tortoises.  How we would like to bring some back home with us!  [Oh yes! Please, daddy, please can we have a tortoise?] The “chandelier” over our heads is a sunbird nest, the female now on two eggs peering down on us.  less  functional than the chandelier at home, but much more entertaining. It’s all very bucolic, quite what we’re used to, but somehow the matrix for these ordinary activities, reading and writing, has been transposed.

I want one!!!!

A shift in the wind has produced high surf and rough seas. If this continues, we’ll not get off the island even if a ship does come.There’s no way our dinghy could get through the surf, a complication we’d not taken too seriously during the calm of the past weeks.

5 January

Last evening’s goat watch provided us with more and closer contact than all previous watches combined. It was hard to stop for supper.  At midnight, the watch was inadvertently resumed when we were roused by odd moaning noises, quite unlike any we’d heard before.  A bright full moon revealed eight goats just outside our tent, apparently conversing in an alien caprine dialect. [speaking of dialects, father…]  A few hours later, when we arose to start the day, we were startled by an apparent sunrise to the WNW.  The sun itself was cloud-occluded, and the full moon was to the north of the where the sun normally set. It was quite disorienting, and we still don’t understand any of this.

Our hike eastward began with an unsuccessful effort to rescue a green turtle that had been marooned by the outgoing tide.  She was too heavy for us to move, so we had to leave her with hopes that clouds and rain would protect her until the next tide.  Then came two hours of agonizing balancing on sharp champignons or stumbling through loose coral and deep, soft sand.  The occasional stretches of turf were just enough reminder of normal walking to add frustration.  The final three hours went more smoothly, though an ill designed and badly fitting back pack made for maximum discomfort.  We did reach CC, finally, about an hour after Meg and her party made it. Engine troubles had delayed them, which was why Meg never reached us at DJL.

This camp is crowded: five others, besides Meg and us, and the place resembles a shantytown of the most impoverished sort. Can’t wait to get away. The immediate surround is a wasteland – coral cliffs and sea to the east, and a vast expanse of largely barren and heavily fragmented tumbled loose coral to the west. The mangrove and biologically more active areas are a ¾ hour walk away, but we will go shortly. The one amenity here is the desk at which this is being written: it’s built within the low enveloping branches of a Guettarda tree and shared by dozens of tortoises.

6 January

Up early for a spiritless jog along the coast, so different from DJL. We felt most unambitious, a feeling accentuated by the hot, sticky air. However, we also felt the need for breakfast, so with a brief bathe in the sea spray (tide was too high and the surf to rough for immersion), we returned to camp for our tea and ration biscuits (World War II British army food), peanut butter (viz, groundnut) and marmalade.  Supplies are in good shape here.

There is an ample supply of relatively fresh (though foul smelling) water here, which may explain why there is a much higher incidence of twins among the goats here than at other sites.

The others at this camp include an ecologist who is studying primary productivity, two entomologists who are surveying coxid beetles and the damage they cause, a tortoise counter, and a scientific assistant, the ever energetic Chris, who does lots of everything. [I can just imagine Chris. 🙂 ] There are also two Seychellois here, Harry, and another who is largely mute as he speaks only Creole. The seas have been too rough for them to fish and we have insufficient fuel for trawling, so there is little for them to do.

7 January

Days pass quickly here, and there are new sights daily.  M. spent last evening trying to puzzle through the southern constellations – someone had left starmaps  – until a bright harvest moon extinguished all but the brightest.  Meantime, P. got a fishing lesson from Harry and Bernard. Those guys are uncanny.  We walked 3 kilometers along the coast, while they scanned the sea, then headed to a coral bench some two meters above the water. Out went two handfuls of minced crab and sand, then a crab-baited line.  10 seconds later, they landed a 30-40 kilogram grouper.  Wow.  Now, a second cast.  This time it took 20 seconds before they landed a red snapper, about 10 kilos.

We hiked to Basin Flamant this morning, and were treated to an overhead view of flamingoes in flight, a glorious sight in the morning sun. They honk rather like Canada geese.

It is moist, and hot! Today’s been the worst – little wind, no clouds, no condition for an afternoon outing. We bathed at low tide on our return from the field at 1 pm, napped until 3, the present time, and will likely stay in the shade at least to 5, when we may check the goats again. We’re focused on establishing the sex ratio now. The predominance of males is striking.

We’re also on the lookout for Meg, who is now several days overdue and we’re beginning to worry.

A good reminder that there’s really no such thing as an island Paradise, appearances notwithstanding.

Gretchen here again: Keep in mind, during these weeks, my teenage sister and self were entirely cut off from our parents. Strange to think how very nearly impossible such incommunicado status is now, no matter how far away one goes.

OK. Thanks for being along for the ride. The next installment will be the final one, and then…oh my! I have to take the reins again. Hope I have something to compete with tortoise-hurdling.