Happy Earth Day!

and it is, too :) It’s a beautiful sunny spring day outside, that’s pretty much perfect where I live. The trees are that light green budded out color, and some – the apples and cherries and dogwoods are flowering. Our native dogwood is one of my favorites. Most people don’t know that we have a beautiful native cherry as well, that is much taller (more like a forest tree) than the ornamental garden variety. Baby blue eyes, Lily of the Valley, Solomon’s Seal, azaleas and camellias, and (almost) lilacs are blooming. The fluffy white clouds and patches of blue sky make a pretty backdrop to the not-quite-leafed out trees.

The day started off not so auspiciously with a dentist’s appointment, but even though he had a cavity to fill, it went quickly, without any pain and suffering. At home, I made my lunch bento, made up a big batch of cole slaw, and made plans for Asian Cornish game hen to marinade overnight. Then, I glance out at my raised beds, which have been busily sprouting weeds, including the ubiquitous and hard-to-remove geranium that grows wild here. Time to really do my Earth Day chores!

So, out I went into the lovely afternoon to rid my beds of weeds and prepare them for planting, noting the green onions, rosemary, and sage that had prolifically survived the winter. Once the beds were prepared, I added the chives, chard, tarragon, and cilantro starts I picked up at the farmer’s market. In a couple of weeks there should be more of the summer herbs and veggies available, like peppers and basil. I’m not sure what else I’ll experiment with this year – maybe plant some garlic and shallots and summer squash. Last year the eggplant didn’t do anything, but neither did anyone else’s (due to the weather), sooo … maybe I’ll try it again. I do like eggplant.

They don’t look like much right now, I know. But they will!!

More bento pics, for those who aren’t bored of them:
Bento #1 – Yogurt and fresh fruit in the small section, rice with smoked salmon and green onions in the larger section
Bento #2 – Tomato, goat cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette in the small section; rice, sushi soy sauce, and nori furikake (seaweed, sesame seeds, garlic, and sea salt) in the larger section


Birds and Turtles

Wow, so hot and humid. So much so that it takes an encounter with wildlife for me to really enjoy it, but Friday was a great day for that. A few clouds in the morning convinced me (erroneously, it turned out) that it might be cooler that day, so I got ready as fast as I could and went out to go birdwatching. It turned out the refuge I originally wanted to visit was not accessible this time of year, as there was no-one there to let you in. However, the receptionist directed me to a bike trail through a different refuge that turned out to be perfect. The trail took about 3 hours to walk (while stopping frequently to look at birds), and led through very nice jungle and mangrove lagoons. An occasional biker or jogger used the path, but not that frequently. It was still very hot and humid, especially as I didn’t get started until about 9 am, but there was constant shade on the trail (yay!).

TrogonMy favorite bird was this one – the Citreoline Trogon. I don’t know why, I have a fondness for trogons – they’re just so cool :) Seeing one anywhere always makes me happy.  There were lots of birds that I couldn’t identify, and yet more that I only heard but never saw. Tropical birding can be quite frustrating – the birds blend so well with the foliage that it is very difficult to ever find them. Yet, despite being hot, sweaty, and having quite a low percentage of actual identification, I was pretty much happy as a clam :D I also did see a Spider Monkey in the bush, which is not that common.

My 5-km or so walk ended at Playa Linda, an estuary where crocodiles swim in the lagoon and a number of local shops, restaurants, and other tourist attractions were set up along the beach. Busfulls of kids from local schools were there on field trips, all excited to see the cocodrillos :) I stopped to talk to an inspector responsible for checking vendor and restaurant licenses, and he told me about his 11 years doing roofing in Phoenix in the 100+ degree heat. Now back in Mexico, his current job is much more enjoyable, well, like a walk on the beach!

Back at the resort I found a notice tacked to the door – their way of letting you know about the latest activity they have planned to entertain the tourists, or the bar specials, or whatnot. Usually I don’t pay much attention to these, but this one was special – it turned out the resort was one of several along the beach to have an active turtle nesting and release program. They collected Green Sea Turtle eggs when they were laid on the beach in November and held them until they hatched, then we all got to participate in releasing them to the ocean. Through this program, the hatch rate has increased from 40% to 90+%, and they are proud of this contribution – plus it was totally fun for us, adults and kids alike.

Baby-Green-Turtle So, we all stood in a line on the beach with our own little teeny turtle cupped in the palms of our hands, then carefully set them all down on the sand at once and waited for the waves to come along. We didn’t dare move until they were all out, for fear of one getting washed behind us and stepped on. Mine kind of sat there for a long time until a wave reached him, then he kind of perked up and started heading slowly for the water. You couldn’t help wanting to cheer when your turtle made it out to sea – as soon as the waves hit they scooted and swam really fast, like little propellors. It was neat to see their little black heads get further and further out, though I worried as they passed the rocky island full of seabirds :)

Maybe a little touristy but something I really enjoyed anyway. It’s great that all these resorts are getting into the action and helping to undo some of the impacts that development of the beach brings. This was far and away the most popular activity that everyone turned out for and enjoyed learning about and participating in, a good sign.

My favorite season

I really need to get a digital camera that works – my posts have been sadly devoid of pictures lately. But I just had to share this mental image with you. Fall is probably my favorite season – the late, unexpected sunny weather, the brilliant leaves, crisp clear days, and moonlight. Even the slightly foggy, cooler colors we’re getting now feel good to me.

For the last month, I’ve been enjoying a particular sight – in my new house in Olympia there’s a big picture window in the garage. That’s kind of odd, but I think it’s because that wall faces out onto the street and it makes the house look more friendly.

Across the street are these maple trees that have been turning all kinds of flaming colors. So, whenever I step into my garage to go somewhere, the whole garage is dark except for this one window filled with brilliant reds, yellows, oranges. I have to just stop for a minute and appreciate it, before going off to my meeting or whatever. Of course I get to see it again driving down the street, but that moment in the dark always catches me by surprise :)

Notes from Hawaii

Having snuck off to Hawaii for a well-deserved rest, the first thing I did upon reaching our condo on Kauai:


From our lanai you could see whales breaching off the north shore, which was pretty cool. I wish I could take pictures of that, but my binoculars came in handy.


I set about quickly identifying all the birds in the area, including Laysan Albatrosses flying overhead, and Hawaii’s native goose, the Nene, pecking about on the lawn:


The coastline below our condo is beautiful, but maddeningly hard to reach:


My co-conspirator in relaxation, in between getting work done:


A beautiful church on the way to the end of the road in NW Kauai:


Today we spent some time hiking the trail in the NW corner of Kauai, which runs along the wild coast. Many slippery rocks later, we were rewarded with amazing views of the coastline and gorgeous jungle foliage:



There was a fast-flowing rocky river at the entrance to the first campground, where we stopped for lunch. You can get a sense of the size of the surf from the woman in the photo, but these were by far the smaller waves – there were 16-ft swells coming in at the time and it was quite spectacular. I spent almost an hour watching the waves and getting ready for the hike back, after which a quick dip in the ocean was required. Due to the difficulty of the hike it was almost 4 hours to go 4 miles.


Birding in Panajachel

Near my hotel just outside of Pana, there were two birding attractions, aside from the many trees surrounding my own hotel, which were full of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks. First was the botanical gardens at the neighboring hotel, which also had a very nice restaurant with an excellent view of the volcanoes – perfect for a sunset dinner, especially since the restaurant at my own hotel was closed for lack of guests (!).


Second was the nature reserve (above), which was just down the road and a little different from what I was expecting. As it turns out, most of Guatemala is very dry, at least on this side of the mountains. So hiking up there, especially in the oak forest part, felt a lot like hiking in California. However, other areas were quite different, like the shade-grown coffee plantations with monkeys and coatis in the trees and suspended bridges over streams and waterfalls. Here are some of the cool birds I saw there (and before you ask, sadly no, these are not my pictures):

Grey Hawk
I got a great look at this handsome bird, which I have only seen once before from a distance in Arizona.

Rufous Sabrewing
This picture hardly does this giant hummingbird justice. One of the largest ones I have ever seen, brilliantly colored green along the back and cinnamon underneath.

Yellowish Flycatcher
Now you might not think this anything much, but it has a very limited range and I was happy to see it :)

Long-Tailed SilkyFlycatcher
This one is prettier, I admit.

White-Faced Ground-Sparrow
Also one with a very limited range, but easily one of my favorites as he looks just like a little clown-face :) Found him feeding peacefully in the grass at the botanical gardens.

Slate-Throated Redstart
A pretty little bird that continuously fans his tail feathers, flashing the white spots on them.

Panajachel – to buy, or not to buy (or just go birding)

Back to Guatemala :) I arrived in Panajachel, which is the largest town on Lake Atitlan, and also the most touristy. Which explains why I had a timeshare out of town, near a nature reserve – a funky place that looked like it had been a 4-star destination in the 90s and was now a bit down at the heels. The rooms were in brick buildings with rounded tops, and large glass windows, surrounded by tall trees filled with birds. My room was neat because I could practically bird from the room, which I did many mornings while getting ready to go out. I also had a nice view of a volcano over the top of the restaurant that I woke up to each morning.

It was a couple days before I actually went into Pana. I was content watching hummingbirds and warblers zip around the grounds, and visiting the botanical gardens at the truly 5-star hotel next door. I had a “date” on Tuesday to visit with a fellow traveler I met sitting around the Houston airport in the wee hours of the morning, waiting to change planes. His daughter ran a jewelry store in Pana and his son ran a hostel in San Pedro, across the lake. He and his daughter owned a house in Pana, so I was curious to find out what it was like to live there.

We spent the day walking up and down the streets of Pana, while I got a crash course in which restaurants were clean and safe and had good food, where to get the best coffee or pastries, and how to bargain – something I’m really bad at and truly hate doing. I guess this is how you get the lay of the land when you move to another country. According to him, the expats all know each other and are very helpful to newcomers. There are also a lot of local events where you get to know people, both foreign and otherwise.

About that bargaining – Guatemala probably has the best markets I’ve seen for buying gifts, and I had a lot of people I wanted to buy gifts for. I’m a thoughtless traveller, I usually don’t buy gifts or take pictures, too busy being in the moment. This time I was determined to do right by my friends and family. I’ve never seen so many textile and jewelry stalls of every description packed into so small a space – and everything in Guatemala is so colorful – it was just a visual riot of color.

I was becoming frustrated at the constant singsongy sales pitches. Everywhere I would turn, it was “Special price for you, lady. Mas colores. Just looking, no problem.” The exact same phrases in every single stall. Apparently these were the few words they had learned and thought they were supposed to say. Of course the “special price” was especially high for us gringos, which just made it more annoying. I would have given anything to shop peacefully in someone’s stall, without them dragging out more and more examples of things with every second I was there.

I guess what bothers me about this is that you can’t make eye contact, you can’t acknowledge their presence, you can’t compliment them on their beautiful goods – or you’ve lost all possible advantage in negotiating a price and you will be followed down the street. Vendors will try to actually put things in your hands, or over your shoulder, and then expect you to pay rather than walk off. Give the slightest acknowledgment and you are lost. Which sucks, because it means you can’t interact with them as a person. I found myself only buying from the places that gave me a little space and responded with some pride, rather than running over with the special prices the second I approached. This is utterly unfair, I know, because the others are probably the ones that really need the business and are just doing what they see as trying hard.

Then there’s the bargaining. I think what I find stressful about this is that I have absolutely no points of reference. I have no idea what these goods are worth, what they make in a day or an hour, how much I’m being charged relative to the locals (or even the ex-pats who live here). One alternates between feeling cheated and feeling like a jerk for trying to negotiate a lower price from someone who makes less than a hundredth of what I do. On the other hand we are constantly told not to pay too much, or all the prices will go up. Which seems like odd reasoning to me; if the people are dirt poor, what harm could it possibly do to pay them more consistently?

Not to mention that these things I’m buying are made by hand. I can’t even imagine the time that it takes to sew some of these things by hand, not to mention making the raw materials. They are the artisans, and these things cost almost nothing in terms of dollars. I’m ashamed to even bargain in the face of that, yet I know that they have deliberately set the price at 2-10 times what a local would pay. I’m expected to bargain, so I do, reluctantly. Eventually I figure out that the right place to end up at is about 2/3 of their original price, and I get a little more comfortable.

Later, a woman in the airport who volunteers frequently down here tells me that sometimes she just walks into a stall and says (in Spanish) “I have so much money for this item right here, which I will pay right now.” And is prepared to leave if turned down – she says that often works, as they know she means it and the price is more or less where they would have gotten to eventually. And she told me that most of the vendors actually know very little Spanish or English; they are Mayan and have their own languages. After hearing the stories of how they are treated by the Spanish in Guatemala, I forgave them their singsongy bargaining phrases.

The vendors are organized in a hierarchy – first those who actually have a store. These are few, and often expats and Spanish. Then, those who have a fixed market stall. Some of these are quite large and opulent, filled with an amazing quantity of goods. Then, those with temporary stalls or tables on the street. After these, the old women and children who walk up and down the street. Lastly, the little boys who ply the waterfront with frozen chocolate-covered bananas or nuts. And we’re talking little boys – 3 or 4 years old in some cases.

The women and kids pester you constantly as you’re walking the street, and if you’re just trying to get somewhere, you get into a necessary habit of “no, gracias”. You’re really not paying much attention, because you know you don’t want to buy anything. But one night, on my way to a restaurant, I suddenly realized what the old woman had offered me – a beautiful piece of handmade cloth for 5 quetzales – about 80 cents. It just made me shake my head. I still didn’t need the cloth, but how dismissive we are of someone’s effort.

After that I started talking to women who would come up to us in restaurants, rather than just ignoring or brushing them off. By this point, my Spanish was getting better. One night a woman was telling me about her seven children (each one usually has a baby slung in a cloth on her back). She asked if I had any children, and I said no, I was single. She said “It’s better that way.” Seeing that I didn’t need to buy anything, she asked for some of the food I didn’t need, and of course I was glad to be able to give her something.

This same woman I spoke to in the airport said that many of these women will go all day without anything to eat. After that I was glad I had started giving them food, for which they seemed at least as happy as money. She told me that many men will have several children with a woman, then when it gets to be too much, they’ll just go onto another one, leaving a trail of women raising all their kids by themselves. Any annoyance I had at the street vendors had long since evaporated as I started to really see these women and the lives they lead. One really feels sorry for the children, if they are starting as vendors at preschool age you know they will never have a chance at anything but that. Or maybe aspire to be a tuk-tuk driver – a kind of mini-taxi with three wheels that everyone took around town. Getting the families enough support to get their kids into school was a primary goal of the volunteers in town.

Well, that’s enough about stuff!! I came here to get away from that. It is nice to buy things without packaging though, and without bags. We found a brand new open-air food market in town and it was clean enough to buy things from safely, and make a stir-fry lunch. Even the seafood and meat looked clean (though we stuck to the veggies and fruits). More later!

Postcards from the Bering Sea

I just had to share with you these pics from a friend of mine who is captain of a NOAA research vessel, currently in the Bering Sea (Mike Francisco, for those of you that may remember him from back in the day). Baby seals, which are part of their subject research – too cute not to post! Hope these put a smile in your day :)

Spotted Seal (credit: Ensign Carl Rhodes, NOAA)


Ribbon Seal (credit: Dr. Peter Boveng, NOAA)