Friday, February 7, 2014

A different kind of market day

Haiti Chronicles Part 9

I am in Desab, Haiti, on the last full day of my visit here as a volunteer with the non-profit Stone by Stone. And I'm excited. Because I've been promised a market day in Cabaret.

I've heard all week about the dirty, cramped conditions at market, about the animals sold as food. Well, I'm used to the ever present dirt by now. And I understand the animal-food thing. So I'm excited to windowshop on another people's culture.

I wait by the Toyota Land Cruiser ready to go. Silly, giddy. To market. To market.

Soon, others arrive for market day: Fenel, the medical clinic's administrator, is to drive. Three of the Stone by Stone board members -- Nicole and Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo -- pile into the truck, too. They have business to attend to in Cabaret, a brief introduction to another non-profit then on to market. They promise.

Three other men pile in.

I didn't expect the three others. I've met them, but none are from Desab. They are all leaders from other mountain villages, all members of a cooperative designed to co-manage services on the mountain. I guess they're going to  market, too.

So we rumble and tumble down the road better suited for animals than trucks. We pass families waiting for a cock fight to begin, both people and donkeys overloaded with goods going to and from market, and goats and chickens scrambling to get out of our way.

We end up at Jason and Ginger Lovan's house in Cabaret, where we see four (maybe five?) more co-op leaders sitting on a wall at the entrance to a seriously tight driveway. We park, spill out of the truck and are joined by those other leaders who follow us into the house.

Unexpectedly, we're in the midst of a formal meeting of the mountain's nine-village co-operative. This is no meet-and-greet.

Ginger who, like us, expected five and not 12, scurries to provide more seating, reposition fans and offer fresh, cold water to drink.

We all settle in, for a very long meeting we didn't know was going to happen. And at that moment, I feel something big is about to happen. I sense Desab's world might be changing.

Because this ministry, called King's Cross Ministries, wants in. They want to work alongside Stone by Stone to ease the economic hardships of the mountain villages. They are just two people, but they have huge hearts for Haiti and knowledge of available resources. 

And they have great ideas to share, ideas that can bring more goats into the mountain villages, turn chickens into profits,  introduce a cash crop where food won't grow, and work cooperatively with the schools in Desab to offer much needed secondary education.

They even want to plow out a part of that treacherous road to stop erosion. Wow.

These two people, who live just down the mountain, have great plans. And, until this moment, until this very meeting, they had no idea the co-op of leaders existed. And now they can work with those leaders. And with Stone by Stone. I feel an undercurrent of excitement. I see village leaders smile, nod.

I sit, listen and take notes and accept there'll be no market day today. But that's OK. 
Final Haiti Chronicles Part 10: The hopes and dreams of Desab's people

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Unusual foods, extraordinary flavors

Elimene did most of the cooking. Here's she's making
coconut milk from a fresh coconut.

Haiti Chronicles Part 8

Quietly, discretely, Adam leans toward me and holds his spoon up. "Do you see what this is?"

I look. It's a round piece of something on his spoon. I don't know what it is, but it came from a delicious bowl of chicken stew made from poultry butchered and cleaned just hours earlier in Desab, a mountain village in Haiti, where I've lived for the past few days.

"Look at it. Can't you see?" No, still can't.

Then he turns it over in his spoon and I see, immediately. It's a little skull. A little bird brain that's been boiled right along with the peppers, dumplings, coconut milk, plantains, taro root and potatoes Elimene prepared as a special gift to say "thank you" for wedding pictures Julie took the day before.

Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo are board members of Stone by Stone, a small non-profit working alongside the villagers here to get a medical clinic sustainable, without outside intervention. This week, we're here to paint the medical clinic, sort out donated medical supplies and build a trust with the people so they can believe we are serious about working for them and not instead of them.

Our cook rubbed these fish with
 oranges and lemons, then
 marinated them for a day or more.
Adam asks me to keep our discovery just between us because, I guess, of that trust we are trying to build. No problem. I'm living without running water, without electricity, sleeping in a concrete room visited by at least one tarantula and a chorus of crickets, where two Haitian men sleep on the floor to protect us (I don't know from what). So eating homemade, delicious, indigenous food is a great gift I treat with humble respect, even if it yields  surprises.

This big pot of mais moulin (sweet
corn meal) simmered uncovered
for an hour.
And it does, on many fronts (although none as unusual at the chicken stew.) We enjoy goat  stew, coconut rice with congo peas, a fish stew for breakfast, a flavorful pumpkin soup I'm told is a special New Year's meal, carrot and eggplant stew  over mais moulin (a sweet corn meal), a banana soup and red beans and rice. 

I take notes on all of the meals and actually become a pest in the kitchen, asking the women to show me how they cook. But they do. Graciously. I take copious notes. Snap pictures. I want to recreate these delicious, unusual meals. They are just that good.

So I think I'll have a dinner party, some time this fall.

And not just any dinner party.

I want to organize a fundraiser for Desab, preparing and serving food the way the Haitians do (minus the skull). Maybe even write a small cookbook. I'd like to serve up enough goat stew and banana soup and sell enough cookbooks to pay for a kitchen inside the clinic.

I can dream, can't I? Details to come.
This little pot of goat meat simmered for
two hours. Goat is tough, like beef stew,
unless cooked a long time.
Haiti Chronicles Part 9: The men of the mountain unite for an exciting future

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Crisscrossing my cultural divide

Julie Rumo poses Elimene and her husband for a wedding
photo in front of their home in Desab, Haiti

Haiti Chronicles Part 7

We're walking down, down, down a mountainside to visit Elimene and her family so Julie can take pictures.

Special pictures.

Elimene just got married and Julie Rumo, a board member of Stone by Stone, and a professional wedding photographer, wants to take pictures of the newlyweds. So after dinner, we hike down the mountain on narrow paths -- one-person-at-a-time narrow -- on a journey that crisscrosses my cultural divide.

There are no sidewalks, no street lights, no cars, no roads, just  this winding, gutted, stony path littered with animal droppings and with animals, with donkeys, chickens, roosters, goats, mules, cows and occasionally people herding them home.

These animals exist to be eaten. They free range throughout the village, foraging for food. Of which there is little. Even for the people. So these animals are essential to life here in Desab.

We arrive at Elimene's, an elaborate structure for these parts, tucked inside a weed copse. And then she emerges from her Haitian home looking like an American bride, all dressed up in a beautiful white satin gown, a few sizes too big, but lovely. Her husband steps out, too, in his rented tux. Together, they model my world.

Elimene's daughter points to the dangling chicken
While Julie engages them in their poses, their front yard fills with onlookers.  I notice a young woman  has a chicken -- a live one -- she's holding by the feet. OK. I cross that divide again. The bird dangles down to her thigh. Every now and then, its head bangs against her hip as she walks. 

I know it's alive. It flutters now and then. My heart breaks for that bird. I want to set it free. But I remind myself that these people are hungry, and if they start changing their hearts toward these animals, everyone would starve.

So I look away and engage in the situation, watching Julie take pictures. Yet I keep glancing at that poor bird, like a loose tooth, I mess with it until it hurts.

The sun is getting low, so we have to leave. But Elemene asks us to wait. Still dressed in her American gown, she hops into her Haitian barn and emerges with THAT CHICKEN! And hands it out to us. OK. Back across that divide. 

Elimene offers a chicken in payment
This poor, dangling bird belongs to Julie now, as payment for her services. 

A great sacrifice, we understand, but panic sets in.

Is Julie expected to tote this upside-down, suffering bird back up the mountain? Then kill it, pluck it, butcher it and eat it? And if she doesn't, will Elimene take great offense? If we do take it, will anyone see us set it free? And will it REALLY be free?

I can see streaks of red rising up Julie's neck, into her cheeks. She's close to the edge. I can tell. She grabs her backpack, opens it wide, I guess hoping they'll stuff the bird in there and not expect her to touch it. 

Elimene laughs and turns the bird over to her husband. And through a series of gestures  mixed with more laughs and a few English words, we learn she'll do all the prep work because she's coming to our house tomorrow to cook THIS chicken for dinner.

Haiti Chronicles Part 8: Eating in Desab 

It all started so innocently

Before the pencil wars

Haiti Chronicles Part 6

I sit on concrete steps leading to a little one-room school building in Desab, surrounded by a dozen Haitian kids quietly coloring and sketching.

I brought the supplies, through a non-profit called Stone by Stone. The children provide the enthusiasm, digging deep into my pink and green backpack for the crayons, pencils, drawing pads and coloring books they know are there. For them.

I don't know why, but the yellow No. 2 pencils are hot. All the older kids want one. I pass out what I have. And there aren't enough to go around. That means war.

The pencils transform into swords and bludgeons. The pencil-less hurl stones at the penciled. They run around me, use me as a shield. Kick dirt in each other's faces.

These kids don't have toys or a playground, so they play with nature and discarded items. Sticks and rocks, empty soda bottles, plastic lids. 

Pencils. Sharpened pencils.

They're having great fun, but I don't like being a weapons dealer. So I yell "Pa Bon! Pa Bon!" Bad! Bad! I hold my hands out, palms up and wave my fingers. They instinctively know it means "GIVE ME THE PENCILS." They obey.

One little boy, Dinor, is still being hunted by one of the older kids, a girl, wearing a black skirt. He ducks when she comes near him. He scurries away. He looks up to me for help. I shrug. What can I do?

He slides his hand down his thigh. Charades? I don't know.

He dances away as the teen in black swoops down on him again. His eyes plead with me to help. He slides his hand repeatedly down his thigh. Slide slide slide. I should understand.

He points at the now giggling teen in black. Ducks her advance, slides his hand, looks at me and points at her.

She screams like she's been found out (A clue!), then runs after him.

I start putting the pieces together. Pencils. Ducking. Gesturing. Pocket perhaps?  Pencil?  I turn to the girl in black (who's standing right behind me now)  and do my wavy finger thing. Bingo. She grimaces and pulls the pencil/sword from her pocket and surrenders it to me.

He's giddy; she scrunches her nose and struts away.

He helps collect the rest of the art supplies and skips circles around me as we head back up the hill. Minutes later, he's off, scooting back down toward the little village square to play.

He's gone so fast I have no time to warn him. That I see the teen in black down there. Behind a tree.  Watching him. With a stick.

Haiti Chronicles Part 7: Smacking into the cultural divide

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Encountering tarantulas

Not MY tarantula, but similar

Part 5 Haiti Chronicles

 I am standing next to my bunk, fluffing my pillow in Desab, a mountainous Haitian village, when  something crawls down my upper arm.

 Then over my lower arm.  I give my arm a shake and fling a tarantula  down into my pillow.

 I'd say he was big. Maybe the size of a basketball (kidding). But big.

Adam Pitzer, my hero/protector and one of the directors of Stone By Stone, snatches up my pillow, with the doomed tarantula  clinging tightly and rushes away.  I imagine he intends to let the harmless critter go into the wilds of the Haitian bush. I don't ask. 

What a memorable encounter. 

I'd heard many stories about the tarantula (Phormictopus cancerides)  here in Desab. They don't release enough poison to kill a human, but they have long teeth, about 3/4 an inch long, and so their bite can really hurt.  Lots of people (in the US) keep them as pets because of their beautiful markings. And they live freely throughout Haiti.

My friend Paul Rumo (another Stone by Stone director) names the ones he sees here in Desab; so I name mine: Bedfellows. He's not the first one I've met on this adventure.

Little Lily lives down by the bathroom, an outhouse with a resident rat that lives down in the hole (shine your light down and you'll see him/her.) Peeping Tom lives in the dressing room (a storage room off the kitchen, which fills up with generator exhaust in the evenings). I train my headlamp on him as I dress. Emeril is already dead when we see him,  in the kitchen at the step near MY BED.

Poor Emeril. Why did he die and where was he going WHEN he died?  I don't want them killed. They live here. I am only visiting. Abend, our translator and protector, says it feels like rain, which brings the tarantulas out. So, I expect to find more.

And I do see one more. It might be Peeping Tom, because he's back in the dressing room. But he's moved closer to my world, to the wall behind which I sleep. To where Bedfellows and I made our acquaintance. And I remember that feeling, of Bedfellows crawling down my arm.

So in the course of one day, I change from pacifist to activist. DIE DIE DIE! I call for help. And Peeping Tom is swept to his death.

I feel no remorse. And I see no more tarantulas.

BTW: Paul's tarantulas  are Sharts, Jesus Freaks, Squeal and Amil (pronounced a meal). Adam and his wife, Nicole (president of Stone by Stone),  named one NBD (No Big Deal).

Part 6: Haiti Chronicles: Even without a common language, we understand each other -- finally

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feeding starving children -- on the sly

Reginald's response to me
 the day after we met
Part 4: Haiti Chronicles

The sun has set on my first day in Desab, and it's dark where we eat, tucked way back in the one-floor medical clinic, away from the ceaseless stares.  Many Haitians, especially the children, watch us constantly through the exposed Rebar at the front and side of the clinic. And many of them are hungry. Not just for dinner. But forever.

So it's more comfortable for us to eat out of view.

Our first meal is yummy spaghetti  with triangles of fresh bread from the village bakery.  As we eat, we talk, engaging in an impromptu Stone By Stone team building meet-and-greet, a time to talk about our expectations for the week and expose our concerns. We talk and eat. 

And then, there are leftovers. In a country as hungry as Haiti, how can we toss out leftovers? We have too little to feed the village. And there's no refrigeration to stow what's left.

Julie has a plan. We don't feed the village, she says. We feed the smallest.

So she walks into the staring crowd and peels away the littlest ones, handing them off to me.  I walk them back through the dark to the corner office where we just ate. One by one, I lead eight kids back to plates heaping with spaghetti, forks and chunks of fresh bread. Each time I encourage them to "pataje" (pat-a-jay), Kreyol for "share." And seven of them do. Lovingly. Sweetly. Gently.

But not all eight.

Reginald in his school uniform. Anyone willing
to sponsor him in school? Talk to me. I have
the details.
The eighth is Reginald, who has grabbed a whole plate  of spaghetti for himself. He circles the plate with his arm, creating a shield against hungry invaders. As Reginald inhales the spaghetti, the starving little boy he's supposed to share with looks at me, pleadingly. DO SOMETHING, his eyes scream. Then he watches Reginald's feeding frenzy in silence. As do I.

It's the oldest of the smallest, a little girl, with a take-charge attitude, who commands Reginald to "PATAJE, PATAJE!" shaking her fork at him. And when he doesn't, she, too, looks to me to fix things. To take charge.  To be the adult.

To force a starving little boy to share food.

"Pataje, Reginald," I say, gently. OK. Wimply. "Pataje."

He clutches the dish even tighter and scowls at me. "PATAJE!" I bark, trying to sound serious and beginning to lose my compassion to his insolence. I grab hold of the plate and find myself in a tug-of-war with a little starving child over a plate of spaghetti. (This is unreal. Please. Tell me I did NOT just try to take food from a little starving child!)

My heart screams NO NO NO! This baby is hungry. LET HIM EAT! 

Reginald must hear my heart, because he senses my weakeness and steps up his battle. He locks me in a power-struggle stare, stiffens his shoulders. Frowns. I do the same.

Then, I win. I guess.

I gain access to that plate of spaghetti, grab an extra fork and hand it to the starving chid who's witnessed my assault on this other starving child, this starving baby, this child who just needed food.

When they are finished, I collect their plates, forks and delightful "mesis" (thank yous).

Reginald refuses to give thanks. Instead, he stomps  to my side, grabs my hand, does that power-struggle stare again, and, without even a hint of resignation, demands, in English, "Give me water."

"Water," he repeats, insists. "Water."

Julie, who I discover knows this child nearly as well as she knows her own, shoos him away with a fervent "ale, ale," (all lay, all lay!) go, go!  He plants his fists on his hips.  And stares at her. She rolls her eyes. I grin.

He's a little hellion, she says, kind of like the town bully. He's not just hungry. He's a brat, a rascal, a scamp. He's a little boy in need of boundaries. I see him differently now. I imagine him with a sling shot dangling out his rear left pocket (if he had pants on) and a frog in the right.

"Ale!" she snaps and points to the door. Finally, he stomps out without his water. But he's  got my attention. I'm sure we'll go head-to-head again.

Part 5: Look who's sleeping in MY bed

Thursday, January 30, 2014

24 hours in Desab

Part 3: Haiti Chronicles

What follows are vignettes from my first 24 hours in Desab, a Haitian village reaching for the stars in the mountains of Haiti. I visited  with the non-profit Stone by Stone:

  • People walk up into the mountains, well past the top of the village,  toting 10-gallon plastic buckets. They return much later (I never timed them)  with the buckets full of water (a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds) perched on a sturdy cloth ring atop their heads. And they are barefoot. And the terrain is rocky, bristly with brush. Their only water source is a spring high in the mountains.
  • A child, no more than 8, leaps onto the back end of a donkey, grabs rope reigns and entices the donkey to dance in circles, like a rodeo cowboy. Seconds later, a second smaller child leaps onto the donkey's neck. They get the donkey to dance again, then it's back to work,  They ride over to two large plastic buckets, lean over and grab them, then trot up the hillside to fetch water for their families.
  •  A very pregnant goat grazes  at the upper edge of the small village square. Throughout the day, I see dozens of goats, some with kids, some dragging long ropes, other wearing wooden harnesses designed to prevent them from going deep into the brush. Villagers know their goats. No need for fences. The animal forage freely for their food.

  • Many donkeys outfitted with wooden homemade saddles serve as cargo carts for families toting bread and vegetables to and from market, which is about seventies down the mountain. The saddles resemble those I see in pictures of early Mexican conquistadors. The one pictured above was parked outside church on Sunday  morning.

  • A young man gallops into the village on donkey back,  coming to a stop at the bakery, a rectangular building with what looks like a pizza oven inside. The rider slides a small package out from under the donkey's bridle (salt, soda, yeast?)  and hands it to a baker. The bakers make bread every day, sometimes late into the night, often early in the morning. The bakery is one of the few places to work in the village.  Mostly, there are no jobs.
  • A tarantula hangs out in the weeds near the concrete latrine. A couple of rats live down in the hole. The latrine is for aid workers. (Our culture.)  Villagers potty discretely in the bush. (Their culture.) The  smelly structure sits just feet away from the preschool. 
  • Everyone dresses up for church. Everyone. Even the children.
  • In church,  lots of children sit quietly and listen (or act like it), for all four hours of it (an unusually long service, I'm told.). If they act up, they meet evil stares from adults. All adults. The village raises its children. And children are to behave in church. Outside, they play, sing, laugh and devill each other. Inside, they sit quietly and listen.
  • Still at church,  a little girl, about 5, gets doozy after three hours. So mom (grandmom? aunt?) lays a  blanket on the floor, then gently arranges the now sleeping child on the blanket (pictured).
  • Lots of singing and swaying in church. Three little boys in the back create their own acoustic section banging rhythmically on two metal chairs. Despite this environment of very strict behavior, nobody hushes the trio. It was just that good.

  • I count 30 concrete steps  curving downhill to the bathroom from the Big House. Which means I hike 30 concrete steps up to get back, sometimes sharif the steps with foraging animals. Plus I cover a short stony trail to a piece of broken pavement before climbing two more steps into the house. Hazardous (for me) at night. 
  • A starving puppy (most dogs and people here are hungry) shrinks from people because they taunt him. I see a man, about 25, throw stones at (in the direction of?) his own dog to stop her barking. She isn't hit. And she quiets down. 
  • Dust. I've never seen so much dust.
Part 4: Our first meal

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Part 2: Haiti Chronicles

Leaving my world behind

It's all surreal.

Nothing is my normal.

I've climbed (vaulted, scaled!) into the back seat of a massive Toyota Land Cruiser with seven other people.  Our driver, Fennel,  maneuvers expertly yet quickly (don't look) through the dusty, crowded streets of Port au Prince, heading north toward the mountain village of Desab, our home for the next week.  Multiple ropes restrain a pyramid of luggage piled high on top. Just like in the movies. The old movies.

It's market day, but nothing I'm used to. The streets vibrate with people. Lots of them. Crowds of them. For miles and miles, they mill about, selling/buying toiletries, corn meal (mais moulin), fruits, vegetables, sugar cane (wheelbarrows full), sodas, clothing, candy, car parts, chickens, goats and scads of shoes. They sell from storefront shanties, or just tables set up on sidewalks. Some squat, sorting cow peas or cleaning rice. Others tote their wares on top of their heads. Chickens scratch and scatter.

Colorful taxis (called Tap Taps)  stuffed with Haitians compete for road space with us as do motorcycles (also a form of taxi). Are there five people on that bike? Yep. And four on the next.

They zig and zag down the road, as do we, passing large trucks, SUVs and motorbikes on wide roads and narrow ones. It doesn't matter. Traffic laws, apparently, are suggestions.

I close my eyes. A lot. To keep out the dust, avoid panic and to reset my brain because nothing is normal. Knitted into the all this activity is unbelievable poverty. And destruction. This daily hubbub  co-exists with rubble and debris from a massive earthquake four years ago that killed 300,000 people and toppled the capital city's infrastructure. 

Despite dire conditions, life percolates. And we rumble along, mere passersby, as we head into the countryside  zipping and of course, zagging. No vehicle is too big or too fast for us to  pass. I see to my right many layers of  mountains, all wearing their winter browns, and to my left, the sparkling blue  Caribbean.

We pass through smaller towns in smaller, but similar market modes. People swarm everywhere.

Then we turn right. Into a storybook world.Onto a dirt and stone pathway, heavily gutted by rainwater and framed at first by banana, plantain and mango trees, then thirsty scrub brush. It leads up and up and up, seven miles into the mountains. Where people ride donkeys or walk, many barefoot, toting their wares to sell and those they buy piled high on their heads. We're the only car, so they step aside, as do the dozens of goats, chickens, cows and donkeys that scatter as we rumble up and up. Some chickens have broods swarming around their feet. A baby goat follows her mother, getting out of our way.

This is an impossible road that passes through a cultural divide.  No running water. No electricity. 

Then we stop. We are here.

Part III: First-day impressions of Desab

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Haiti Chronicles: Conflicting Anticipation

Why go to Haiti?

The woman asking me this stands with me at a ticket counter in the Miami Airport.  She scrunches her nose as she asks. Like she's smelling something bad.

Well, I'm not sure why I am going to Haiti. So I say simply,  "I'm  a volunteer, at a medical clinic."

 "Oh," she snarls, as if what I've said is distasteful. Her nose is still scrunched. "Relief ... You are a relief worker. It's not my idea of a vacation." 

She walks away and I think about her words. No. This is not a vacation. But what is it? I am going to Haiti for one week with a small nonprofit called Stone by Stone that supports a medical clinic and school in Desab, a remote village about seven miles straight up a  mountainside. I have no idea what I will be doing. No idea how I can help. I have no special skills. I am not a doctor or nurse, a construction worker or a teacher.

I'm just me. A retired newspaper editor.

I get my boarding pass and join a busy waiting room where blocks of colorful T-shirts create a comfort quilt.  The T-shirted people huddle together, yet separately. There's an orange group, a yellow one, then green and blue.  Through casual conversations I learn:

The largest group is the orange one: Juniper Community Missions, a church-planting group  from outside Harrisburg, PA, heading to Leone, Haiti. I count about 12 of them.

The yellow group is, which built an orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti. (The birth of this non-profit is heartbreaking.) I see, maybe, nine?

The green shirts are from Children's-Hope out of Montgomery, AL, which runs an orphanage in Jacmel.

The smallest are the blue shirts, a husband and wife, first timers with Mission for Haiti, also heading to Jacmel.

 They are as perplexed as I about their purpose. "We don't know what we will be doing. All we know is we have a heart for people and we want to help."


Thank you, Blue

Now I know why I am going to Haiti.

NEXT: Ascending from Port au Prince

Sunday, January 5, 2014

And we wait ...

The night breeze is damp, cool, but not cold. I feel it kiss my hands, my wrist, my face as it rolls through my hotel room window. 

Hotel room. Yes. I am in a hotel room in Hampton, VA, instead of in my motorhome heading into warmer places because our transmission broke. Otto is sick, but we get him  back on Wednesday with a new transmission, new brakes and even a new fuel filter.

Until then, it's this hotel. We live in a hotel. And you know what? It's a blast. A vacation like no other.

I watched the Food Network on TV for four hours this morning. Napped for four hours, then watched the Food Network again for four more. (I love the Food Network; I don't get it at home.)

All the while, my hubby dove into his computer and my dog? Well, he stretched out in the middle of this king-sized bed. All day. (See the picture? That's Allen on the left; Jacob sleeping in the middle of the bed; and on the right is Guy Fieri sampling BBQ at some Diner, Drive-In or Dive.) 

I'm sure tomorrow we'll do more than vegetate.

But for now, this cool damp breeze kissing my hands and my face is just the best.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Swallowing my pride never tasted so good

 I am covered in sand, embarrassment and determination.

I've just watched my 70-year-old husband scurry up a steep sand dune with an 7 year old at a beach on Ocracoke Island, the whole of which is a National Seashore.

I have failed to make the climb. I am on my knees in the sand, breathless, after going nowhere despite doing a series of Stairmaster lungs in the spilling sand.  I have failed.

Yet I cannot fail. I refuse to settle for defeat.

So I stand up, wipe myself off, and observe the dune, looking for a less parallel  wall of sand to climb. That's when I hear my friend Julie send one of her children -- I said CHILDREN -- to help me make the climb. Now these kids define litheness. One of me outweighs all three of them combined. Still, here is an 8 year old, Kenson, at my side, hand outstretched to help. How can I let him down? So I tell him to pave my way and I follow.

Suddenly Paul, Kenson's dad, is right next to me, also with hand outstretched. I make two of Paul. I could take him down in a slip. Yet his offer is so genuine, his effort so sincere. How can I let him down? So I take his hand (from time to time) and step where he steps to climb, laboriously to the top.

We make splendid (still embarrassing) progress. One of the children, I don't know who (and please don't tell me) pushes me upward from behind while Paul tugs me skyward from above.

We continue making progress toward the top.

Where I now stand. Winded. Ashamed (because of all the help AND because Julie photographed this whole shameful episode of my life) yet tremendously excited that  I made it.

Paul and I do the Rocky fist punch in the air, and then slide back down.

I'm still covered in sand and embarrassment yet now have a modicum of pride, because I (well, we) did it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's Always Something

We're having a Rumo Day. (Our friends the Rumos have five children. Every day is an adventure for them.   Never wake up, exist, then back to sleep. Never. Always a little monkey wrench  works itself in somewhere.)

Three of their kids ride with us in our RV, named Otto, traveling down North Carolina's Route 12 in Cape Hatterras National Seashore, heading toward the ferry to  Ocracoke Island. The parents await us there.  We plan to celebrate New Year's Eve together. Say hello to 2014.

So we are on the road. And our 14-hour journey to meet up with their parents  now spans 29 hours because, well, Al can't be rushed.

But we are almost there. Thirty minutes to the ferry, an hour ferry ride then we will be there. Ocracoke. 

But ROAR ROAR ROAR. Something's wrong with Otto. ROAR ROAR ROAR. We've lost gears. We're coasting down Route 12, no gears and three young children yearning for  Mom and Dad.

Our first little miracle: A turnout. So we coast safely off the road with just Otto's nose sticking into the road. No problem.  We have CoachNet, a super expensive road emergency service for RVs. I call. I cry. Our policy expired in February.

Our second little miracle: CoachNet assists us anyway, finding a qualified mechanic and notifying police to come to our rescue. We leave lots of messages for the mechanic (it's Saturday night now and nobody is home). The police come and we -- me, two 8-year-olds and the cop -- push Otto to safety (Al's behind the wheel; the youngest tends to the dog.)

It's getting late and we decide to head on to Ocracoke for the night and tend to Otto tomorrow. 

Our third little miracle. All six of us (me, Allen, the three boys and our giant standard poodle) and our overnight bags fit into our toad, a Scion IQ (Go ahead, Google it ...).

Our fourth little miracle: Neither the police who watch us pile into the little car nor the Coast Guard who watch us pile out cite us for failing to meet the safety code.

Our fifth little miracle: Kenzie, Kenson and Kenley, the three little boys with us, smile, laugh and giggle despite the uncertainty.

Finally, 34 hours into our 14 hour journey, we meet up with the Rumos and snuggle in for the night, happy, laughing and pleasant.

Yes, it was a Rumo kind of day. And, thank God, it ended that way, too. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sturdier Stock Than I

I don't like Fort Davis, Texas.

It's a dusty little town forgotten by most and existing, well, I'm not sure why.  It's dusty here. When the wind blows, it brings more dust. My skin suffocates under layers of it. My hair scares me. My breathing labors. So, we're getting out of here.

But first, I need to mail off some birthday cards.

So we head to the post office, where I first meet a fellow sorting mail. He's a youngish guy, all smiles. He nods. Friendly.

At the counter, I watch as two women engage in a brief hug, then, with their arms still engaged, pull back and give each other wide, toothy grins. "It's so good to see you," one of them says. "I heard about your loss. I am so sorry."  "Oh, thanks. I'm OK," the woman in mourning says. They lock eyes briefly, then  they detach and get on with their business. Girlfriends.

My turn at the counter is sweet. I tell the postal worker my oversized card is for my granddaughter. So she digs in her drawer and pulls out a "Finding Nemo" stamp. Thoughtfulness.

I thank her and turn to leave and am stopped by the sight of a crowded bulletin board. Bake sales. Story times. A firehall dance. An involved community.

Then two men in front of me exchange greetings and the one man says to the other, "How are ya?" The older man smiles and nods, then says, "I'm just fine!  I miss (Maude? Mable? inaudible name, but definitely a recently passed wife), but I'm getting on just fine."   Resilience.

On my way out the door, a feller tips his hat and says, "Howdy." 

OK. I get it.  Fort Davis, dust and all, is a pioneer town. It's alive, perhaps, because of people like these, people who reinforce their independence with self-reliance  and a strong sense of community. 
People who don't crumble under the dust. They just shrug it off.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Well, Hello 2013; Nice to Get To Know You

We're sitting around a campfire (well, a propane-fed flame licking fake charred wood in a metal pot) at Padre Island National Seashore welcoming in the New Year (2013). 

With strangers.

It's windy, so our impromptu party of 12 (plus one dog) gathers leeward, using one of those monster motorhomes as a shield against the blowing sand and wind.

We're having tentative fun. We don't know each other. We're all so different. Some drink tequila, wine, beer; others do Coke or tea. Shy conversations abound, but all seek common ground: Where are you from? Been here before? Where are you going? And, a frequent question tonight, "What is your name again?"

We're all gray-haired, retired, not really able to dance the night away, but, strangely, I feel like I'm in a bar, a college bar. What's your major? Come here often? We're getting to know each other.

We are a community of Winter Texans, escaping the cold and icy climes of Ohio, Michigan, New York. We have a few real Texans, too. We laugh at clean jokes. No off-color ones are told.  We're warming up to each other.

And we dust off old stories new friends enjoy hearing. Like the time Howie played a practical joke on Kathy, pretending he was a lecherous Santa; or the time I had breakfast with Keith Richards. Pat broke all hearts with her story about how her Aunt Cat's alzheimer's  is winning.

We munch on popcorn, tell more tales. Laugh. Sometimes heartily. That laughter recasts  our unfamiliar as familiar.

Soon, we collect our things and it's time to go, to walk back to our RVs. This assortment of strangers are now friends.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Look What The Wind Blew In

I know it's a stretch, but see those two dark blobs? That's them!
Flutter flutter, scratch scratch.

What's that?

It's morning at Padre Island National Seashore and I'm making the bed in our motorhome. That involves me climbing up on the mattress on my knees and crawling around like a 1-year-old to tuck in the sheets and stow the pillows overhead. And I hear "flutter flutter, scratch scratch.

What is it?

I sit back on my legs and look around.  And listen. There it goes again. Flutter flutter scratch scratch. I turn toward the sound. The window.

I think something's come lose in the window beside the bed. We had fierce winds all night that rocked Otto like a baby in a cradle. So it's possible something's come loose. 

I scootch over to the window to investigate and there!  I see two shadows inside the shade. Two M-shaped shadows. AND THEY MOVE!  SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH.

BATS! BATS! Two bats took shelter from last night's storm by hiding inside our  windows that crank open and close like awnings. 

I inch closer and, nearly trembling, raise the shade a smidgeon and one of them LOOKS RIGHT AT ME. But, thank God, he's BEHIND the screen, and I think he's scared.

SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH. He and his buddy disappear. Where did they go? OH, the window is open, just a hair. They must have flown out. I raise the shades all the way and crank the window open wide. Yep, I think they're gone.

Except now it's dusk, about nine hours after our first bat adventure and Allen cranks out the windows again, to get some air, and FLUTTER FLUTTER SCRATCH SCRATCH. They're still here!

But this time, he SEES them fly away, into the dark, AWAY from our motorhome.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Always About Jacob

This looks exactly like Jacob's painful snack.
Jacob ate a Portuguese Man-O-War.

Yes, my 9-year-old standard poodle ate the little venomous, jelly fish-like creature and he's now shaking his head violently and slobbering massively. Bluish goo drips from his front teeth.

And there's nothing I can do about it.

We are about a mile from the motorhome, walking the beach and there is no one around. No one. The beach is empty, except for me, Allen, our other standard Joshua and poor pain-racked Jacob. 

Why is is always Jacob?

So far, Jacob has survived a New Mexican tussle with tumbleweed, which scratched his cornea (he had lunged into the brush after some animal and the tumbleweed attached itself to his face); food poisoning after eating God knows what on a long walk through the woods in Alabama; a traumatic toe injury on Padre Island National Seashore while trying to rustle a ghost crab from its den (he dug into the sand with such fury, that when he hit a piece of concrete, he snapped a toenail off) and the worst -- something he did absolutely nothing to cause -- cancer, which we got rid of when we had one of his left rear toes removed.

Now this. And we knew it was bound to happen.

At times, the Padre Island National Seashore beach serves up hundreds of small dead or dying Portuguese Man-O-War. We warn Jacob constantly "Don't eat that" but today we weren't watching and he did and now his mouth hurts from the stinging tentacles and we can do nothing about it but pity him.

We already know the consequences. A few years ago, when Jacob first tried to snarf up one of the gooey things, we asked a park ranger how safe it was. Well, he told us, he won't die, but his mouth sure will hurt for a while.

So, poor Jacob. He shakes and spits. It's 25 minutes until we finally reach an outdoor hose (at a fish cleaning station here on the island) and I wash out his mouth. He's grateful. I can tell. He slurps and slurps and slurps the fresh water.

And now the head shaking ends. Jacob crisis over. For now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Answers to Unspoken Prayers

Ethan and Mahira

I miss Christmas.

I don't know what I was thinking when I agreed to be away from home on the holidays.

No problem, I thought. Our far-flung families commonly celebrate this exciting time without us. So it's often just us. And we don't make a fuss for just us. Much of our fuss is church related. We go to church and celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is the center of our lives.

I didn't realize until today that the other stuff we do at Christmas rounds out my heart. We visit with friends, break bread together, play games.  I miss being a part of that friendship fold. 

I feel so alone.  I'm here at the beach, in the warmth of Padre Island National Seashore. And I am lonely.

And then there's a knock at our motorhome door.

"Hello? Is this a good time to drop by?"

The greeting is from a family we just met. Our RVs are similar, so they've stopped by to see how we manage to live inside such a small space. They stay and chat; we chat some more. Their kids, Ethan and Mahira, stay long after their mom and dad leave because, well, we're busy, playing iPad games, talking about books, exchanging life stories.

Then Joan stops in. We've just met Joan. She's 80 years old and traveling across country in a pick-up truck towing a trailer by herself (well, she has two dogs.)

She's stopped by for cocktails. And because we don't drink, she's brought her own as well as a tray of cheese and crackers. 

It's now crowded inside our little RV. But no one notices. Because we're laughing, playing games, nibbling on h'ors deuvers. It's (almost) like a family get-together, celebrating Christmas.

I'll be so bold as to say Jesus felt my heart breaking and brought good people to surround me, to help me heal. And the ones he chose were a family of Jews and an elderly agnostic. 

They came to me on Christmas, extending the gift of friendship. Thank you. Thank you.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

For the Birds

Not sure what kind of birds these are. Someone suggested female crackles. OK.

Our water heater leaks.

I'm sitting in the sun, next to our motorhome on Padre Island National Seashore, and I see drip, drip, drip. Water from our leaky hot water heater dribbles off the bottom edge of our motorhome, creating a widening dark spot on the pavement. It annoys me. Precious water. Evaporating. Exasperating. Dry campers understand this.

Suddenly, WOOSH. Birds, about 20 of them, descend on my leak. HA! They flutter about, muscling  for the best spot to bathe or drink.  And then they're off. Except for two. I'll call then Dad and Son.

Son hops over to the drip and hops up, like he's on a trampoline, slurping each drip. Drip, hop, slurp. Drip, hop, slurp. Exhausting to watch. Drip, hop, slurp.

Dad pushes Son aside. "Watch me!" He tilts his head back, opens his beak and catches the drip.

Drip, drink, drip, drink. Son, typical Son, ignores Dad. Instead, he siphons water from a small puddle.

Satiated, Dad flutters off.

Son repositions himself under the drip, tilts his head back. Drip, drink. Drip, drink.

I hope Dad's watching.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In The Eye of the Beholder

In addition to being beautiful (wink wink), these fake flowers are  functional. I store chains in the pot.
I like my outdoor carpet, a plastic woven extension of our living space here on Padre Island National Seashore.

It's homey. I set up our chairs on that carpet, and often include a little table between them. It creates the allusion of an outdoor living room, an inviting space for friends to stop by. But few do.

Maybe because the room is not pretty. You see, it's windy down here on Padre Island, and because the carpet turns magical at times, lifting in the breeze, we anchor it down. With ugly stuff. A tool chest, a wheel. Just ugly stuff. I hate ugly stuff.

So my girlfriends Sage and Vickie and I hit the thrift store circuit, looking for a potted posie that's not too tacky to subplant the hardware. Nothing flowery, I tell my friends. Just greenery. Maybe a plastic philodendron.

And then I see it. A pot of colorful pretties. A pot designed to be looked down on. Something I can put on the edge of my caret and when I walk over to it, I can look down and see pretty. Not ugly.

But it's fake flowers. Lots of them. It might be tacky. Maybe I can't see the tacky? So I ask Sage and I ask Vickie: "Is this tacky?"

Silly me. They see I see "pretty." Neither wants to hurt my feelings. They bobble their heads and offer consolation coos. I'm thinking, "They see tacky."  I buy the pot anyway. It's only $3. I can toss it out. Later. If at some time I see tacky.

But for now, it's sitting on the edge of my outdoor carpet. Attracting little yellow butterflies and little orange ones, too. And maybe a new friend or two will stop by to appreciate them, too.