Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Suspended

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

We sat in the sand under a shade tree enjoying our lunch break before more snorkeling.

Here’s something I never knew about snorkeling: it is very dehydrating.  There are lots of articles about it; it’s something about the lack of gravity when you’re in the water, apparently.  Whatever the case, the public toilet on the island was half a mile off, so we all started pretending we couldn’t get enough of the water, wading in and saying things like, “Ooh, I just can’t stay away from of this beautiful water!”  What else could we do?

Emily and I had become pals.  We had both lived and worked or gone to school in other countries. We lived in the same neighborhood now.  And we had both been observing the martyrdom, endless list of food restrictions, and other “interesting” behavior of our fellow tour members.

“Do you have any gluten-free options?” asked Joan as the pulled-pork sandwiches were being handed out.  Lincoln, our boat captain, smiled and shook his head no.  Joan sat back in the shade, her arm still in a makeshift sling from her fall the first day.  She didn’t say, “I’ll just go hungry then,” but she didn’t need to; it was all in her body language.  Neither she nor Liz had gone in the water. This wasn’t surprising about Joan, who was stick-thin and sickly looking and had fibromyalgia.  But Liz was in good shape.

“Ah just didn’t feel lahk it,” she drawled.  If she was hoping we would ask her to explain why, she was disappointed.

The rest of us really couldn’t wait to get back in. As we were putt-putting out to the reef area, I spoke with Vanessa, our guide.

Vanessa had finished two years of college to become an English teacher.  Then she got this summer job as a snorkeling guide and she never went back.  I can’t say I blame her.  When she said she missed writing, I suggested she could write a blog about snorkeling and she liked that idea.  I hope she does it.

We approached a boat where fishermen were cleaning their catch of conches and throwing the leftover scraps into the sea.

We jumped in, and almost immediately I said into my mask, “That looks like a turtle!” only it sounded like, “Flaploogglaga blurpple!”

And it was a turtle, an old Loggerhead about five feet from snout to tail.  This is not “our” turtle but it’ll give you an idea of what she looked like.

She reminded me of my son’s ancient dinosaur-like dog, Willie, without the purple bandana.

Then there were the rays—Eagle rays and Spotted Rays—also as long as I was tall, also prehistoric looking, also a photo stolen off the web.

I wish I could say I took these photos, but as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I take terrible photos above water, never mind below water.

But other people in my group had Go-Pros and water proof cameras.

Here I am, looking like a scene out of Jaws:

Lincoln and Vanessa kept calling out, “Over here!  There’s a lobster / Garfish / Lionfish / Clownfish!  Everyone would swim after them to have a look.  Everyone but me. I reached an area where the sea floor must have been 30 feet below me but the water was so clear it felt like I was suspended in air.  Suddenly I felt panic that I would plummet to the bottom.  That passed and I just floated meditatively.  Doing nothing, going nowhere.  No To-Do list.  I caught myself thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again!” then laughed at myself and focused on the fact that I was there, in heaven, right now.

The meditative mood stayed with me for the rest of the evening.  Walking back to Jeanie’s, we were passed by a teenage boy on a tuk tuk—a motor scooter—with a fat baby balanced on the handle bars.  The baby was laughing with delight as the scooter bucked up and down over the potholes.  I vowed to be more like a baby—unafraid, in the moment, joyful.

Heaven

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

The gang returned from watching Scarlet Macaws.  None had been exsanguinated by crocodile syndrome.  That was good.  Much as some of them irritated me, I wouldn’t want anyone to go that way.

I was sitting in the lodge having a beer when they pulled up in the van.

“Hey there, good lookin’!” shouted Mike.  This was how he was.  From the first day when he sat next to me in the van and read every sign out loud, he had touched my arm, or nudged me, and said things like, “Lucky me, I get to sit next to a pretty lady!” and “Look at that bird, baby!”

I had chosen to ignore him rather than say anything.  Joan, his wife, rolled her eyes at me when he said these things.

He wasn’t a creeper, he was just a clueless, harmless dork.

They ordered drinks and sat around talking about their day.  They had seen lots of birds, including Scarlet Macaws.  The sun set and it was time to head to a local restaurant for dinner.  Mark drove the van while most of us walked so we wouldn’t have our digestive systems jostled.

The restaurant was called Innie’s.  Innie, the proprietor, was what we used to call a “full-figured” woman.  She was around 65, and she explained, “I’ve got seven daughters, and they’ve all got names that rhyme with mine—Ginnie, Winnie, Minnie, Vinnie—for Vincenza—and they all run businesses.  Ginnie’s got herself a hair salon, Minnie does taxes, Skinnie rents scooters, two of them run another restaurant.”

The specialty of the house was hudutu, a fish stew made with coconut milk which sounded delicious but which took an hour to appear and had so many bones you couldn’t really appreciate it.   It was served with the bread that came with every meal—something like Native American fry bread.  It was okay.

Walking back to Jungle Jeanie’s, Mike pointed at a grove of tall slender plants and wondered what they were.

“I think it’s sugar cane,” I said.

“No, it’s not, he said.

Ugh.  Whatever.

We returned to our respective huts.  In ours, a twin bed had appeared in the middle of the room on the first level.

“I don’t care who gets it,” said Liz.

I wasn’t going to play the “I don’t care but I really do” game.

“Good!”  I said, “then I will.”

Snorkeling was the agenda for the whole Day Six.  I wasn’t really up for it; I get claustrophobic and I don’t know how to swim.  I seriously considered having another day of nothing on the beach.

But I went, and it was the best day yet.  Maybe the best day of my life.

Our guide suggested I wear a life preserver around my waist so I wouldn’t have to even think about staying afloat.  I had no pride around that; it was a great idea.  I donned the snorkel and mask, sat on the sand in the shallow water, and tried to put my face underwater.  Once, twice, three times—I couldn’t do it.

This felt like a matter of pride.  I was going to at least get my face underwater once.  I finally did, and was instantly hooked.

How to describe it?  I floated near the water’s surface and gazed at hundreds of species of fish and coral.  All colors, all shapes, large and small.  The water was warm and clear as air.  It was like flying, like flying in a dream.  I couldn’t help exclaiming, “Wow! I see a clown fish!” except it sounded like “Waaaahhhh, aslubbba blabba blish!”  Then I laughed, which also sounded funny and made me laugh more.  No one could hear me.  It was one of the rare times in my life that I felt childlike wonder and playful joy.

We snorkeled for hours, then they rounded us up for lunch on a small island with million dollar homes.  We sat on the beach and munched on our pulled pork sandwiches.  Emily, being married to a Muslim, didn’t eat pork either, so the guides gave us their BBQ chicken sandwiches and we were all happy.

A Long Night

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

The first night at Jungle Jeanie’s was a long one.  It was hot and humid.  Because our hut was in the jungle and not on the shore, there was no breeze.  My hair turned into a giant fuzzball.  My skin felt soft as a baby’s bottom, but there was no one to appreciate it.

This was also the night that Liz started to fart.  The first time, she did the thing that middle-aged women do—“Oops, sorry! Tee hee hee,” like they are embarrassed.  But then she kept farting and stopped apologizing or even acknowledging it.  I was sharing a small, stuffy loft with her.

I climbed over her and down the ladder to the bathroom all four of us would share for the next four nights.  I sat on the toilet trying to figure out where I could go to get some shut eye.  The hammocks on the beach looked tempting but what about the mosquitos?  Then I heard a thump, thump, thumping and Trudy pounded on the door.  It was no use, I couldn’t say, “I’ll be out in a minute,” since she couldn’t hear me.

I handed the loo over to her and sat in the dark at the table in the center of the room.  Except that it wasn’t dark.  “I’m watching Game of Thrones,” explained Emily from her bed, from which emanated the bright glow of her phone.

“I can’t believe how noisy Trudy is,” I remarked, listening to her clunking around in the bathroom.

“Oh yeah,” said Emily.  “People think deaf households are quiet, but they’re actually noisier than most because they aren’t getting feedback.  They’re always slamming doors, throwing things on the floor, and yelling.”  And farting with impunity, I thought.

She put down her phone and sat up.  We talked for a while, about how she went to Tanzania for college, met her future husband on the first day, and got engaged two days later.  “We’ve been married for 20 years and have four kids, so we had pretty good instincts.  Or we just got lucky.”  She and her family lived a few blocks from me in St. Paul.  They went back to Tanzania to visit his family every year.

Trudy came out of the bathroom and started signing.

“She’s pissed off about the bed,” Emily translated.  “It’s lumpy.  But she’s always pissed off or crabby about something.”

“Are you friends?” I asked.

“No!  We just met in Belize.  Wilderness Inquiry taps a pool of interpreters for these trips, and my number came up.  With Trudy it’s her way or the highway.  I don’t think I’d want to interpret for her on a regular basis.  Of course, she probably had to be hard and demanding to get anything in life.”

Trudy was sitting on the edge of her bed moaning and groaning, which I took to mean that her back hurt.  Liz was snoring up in the loft.

“She was put a home for deaf children in the 50s, when she was five,” Emily continued.   She signed to Trudy that she was telling me this.

Five.  How heartbreaking.

Trudy nodded and added in sign, “Yes, it wasn’t a nice place.  They were assholes to me.”

And yet, she had attended college, had a career, married, and had four children.  Her husband had also been an asshole.  She’d divorced five years earlier and had been traveling ever since.

After talking for an hour, I reluctantly climbed back up to the loft.  Finally, around 2am, we all settled down and slept.

Until 5am.  Today was a field trip to the Mayan village of Red Bank to see Scarlet Macaws.  It would involve kayaking and hiking and a picnic lunch by the river.

I waved as they all drove off.  “Watch out for crocodiles,” I whispered sweetly.

I was going to have a Day Off.  I was going to be alone!  I lay in a hammock and read a book, “The Trip to Echo Spring: On writing and drinking,” by an English journalist.  I took a bumpy ride on one of Jeanie’s broken down bicycles with no helmet, brakes, or gears, then napped.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Back to Reality

This is the final post in a series about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Our last night in Toledo.  We had dinner at a restaurant called Dehera d’ Majazul.  I don’t know what that name means but it sounded nice.  The food was unremarkable, but the waitress was memorable.  She looked to be about 18, she was very pregnant, and she had eyes tattooed on the insides of her forearms.  She spoke no English and I found myself looking at the eyes on her arms instead of the ones on her face as I tried to make conversation.

Not for the first time, I had assumed a person with tattoos would be rough and hard.  But she was sweet.  This was her first baby, she was very excited, and no, it wasn’t hard working on her feet.  Well, she was a baby herself, like I was when I had Vince. You can do anything when you’re 18.

The Toledo train station may have been the most ornate building we saw in all of Spain.  Here are a few photos to give you an idea.  I’ve got a a new camera in the works, so you won’t have to wince at my shitty photos much longer.

They screened our bags before letting us onto the platform, but the bored “guard” couldn’t have been bothered to look at the monitor. Really, what is the point of making passengers line up and hoist our bags onto and off of a conveyor belt?  I guess it was all for show.  Some politician in Madrid can say, “We take security very seriously.”

You would think the Spaniards, of all people, really would take it seriously, since Madrid trains were the target of terrorist bombings in 2005 that killed nearly 200 people and injured 2,000.

The arrived in Madrid in half an hour, and it was like going through a portal to another world.  We left behind dark, cramped, steeped-in-medieval-history Toledo for the sprawling, brightly colored high-rise apartment buildings that run for miles before you enter Madrid itself.

Naturally, the taxi stand was on the opposite side of the station, across a treacherously busy thoroughfare, and there were no signs for it.  We asked strangers until we found it.  The driver didn’t know how to find the hotel.  It wasn’t in his GPS and he seemed to have lost his map-reading skills—if he had ever had them—since like our waitress he also appeared to be 18.  He asked if we knew how to get there and handed us the map.  Lynn and I rolled our eyes at each other.

Eventually, after much muttering of mierda! and puta madre! we arrived at our hotel, a functional place near the airport.  It was only 5:00, so the bar and restaurant weren’t open.

We decided to go for a wander around the neighborhood, because unlike most airport hotels which are in deserted warehouse areas, this one was set in a regular neighborhood.

I quickly spotted a pair of blue velvet pants in a shop window.  “I’ve got to have those!” I exclaimed, pulling the door open.  “I’ve always wanted a pair of blue velvet pants.”

“Oh please,” Lynn shuddered, “Don’t say pants!”  Because pants, of course, means underpants to an English person.  It was a Chinese shop full of the cheapest, tawdriest clothes you’ve ever seen.  I loved it!

Next we rootled up and down the aisles of a grocery.  If you love pig-derived foods, you’d love this store.

I always buy Vince foods with funny names when I travel, and this time it was Bonka.  What a great name for … coffee?

Fancy some Chilly gel for your intimate places?  I love the literal name for stain remover—quitamanchas—“get out spots.”

Our final stop was a hardware store, which offered every size of paella pan.

And that was that.  We had a salty, fatty dinner at the hotel, slept, jumped on a shuttle at 6:30 a.m., and flew out in our separate directions.

In the bathroom in the immigration hall in Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, there was this sign.

Sigh.  Vacation over.  Soon, back to work raising money for torture rehabilitation.

40 Quid for a Squid

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I had a wander around Toledo. That’s the only way to approach it—as a wander— because there isn’t one straight street that runs for more than a city block.  Here is a photo of our battered map we consulted seven times a day, and still managed to get turned around:

Toledo is on a hill on a peninsula, so it made a great fortress in its day.  There’s a medieval wall surrounding it, occasionally punctuated by imposing gates:

We passed bakeries with marzipan and something baked that looked like a squid:

“It’s never a squid!” Lynn remarked. “What city would have a squid as a mascot?  We’re nowhere near the sea, either.”  We later learned it was a dragon, but I prefer to continue believing it’s a squid.

“I’ve got to buy one,” I insisted, “They’re so beautiful!”

“They’re 40 quid,” Lynn pointed out, using the British slang for a pound.  Ah, maybe not.

We passed shops full of swords, knives, scissors, and everything else that is sharp.  Sharp instruments are one thing Toledo is known for.  I made a note to buy Vince a good knife and also purchase swords for my nephews, who are three and seven years old.  Let you think I’m out to help them murder each other, there were plenty of wooden and foam varieties on offer.

Toledo is also famous for damascene, a craft in which gold wire is worked into a black background to make plates, jewelry, and knick knacks.  It was spectacular to see shop windows full of it.

We accidentally found the main square, which had a Burger King with a bathroom. You had to buy something in order to get the code to use it.  By now it was after noon so I didn’t mind snarfing down a small cheeseburger while Lynn tried a mango shake.  A mango shake—it sounded so exotic and healthy, but according to Lynn it was mainly just sugary.

Toledo, like Granada, had a “touristic trolley.”  This one was easier to buy tickets for and board, so in five minutes off we went.  The trolley couldn’t navigate the narrow lanes of Toledo central, so it exited one of the city gates and stopped to let us off for scenic views from across the river.  It really is a romantically beautiful city, and the sky even cleared on one side for a few minutes.

We worked up an appetite saying, “Ooh” and “Aah” so we walked into the first restaurant off the main square that we saw.  I don’t remember what Lynn had, but this would be the best meal I had on my entire trip.  I don’t even remember what my main course was, but the starter was venison carpaccio, and it was fantastic.

I never knew that venison could be so tender, so flavorful. Maybe the title of our map, “Toledo: Capital Española de la Gastronomía,” wasn’t just marketing bluff speak.

I had wondered how we would fill four days in Toledo.  There were no world-famous attractions there like in Madrid or Granada.

I needn’t have worried. The map offered 29 attractions, and we made it to 13 of them. This afternoon, after my cosmic experience with venison, we chose to visit the Cathedral.  Even though it was far and away the most massive building in the city and had a stupendously tall tower that could be seen from most vantage points, it took us the better part of an hour to find the entry.

It was worth the effort.  We spent hours there; my favorite thing was the dozens of grotesques carved in wood that lined the seats where the big wigs used to sit.  The one-eyed one was particularly creepy.

There was nothing about them on audio guide, which mainly went on about the architectural features and historical dates. If I knew I could remember any of it, it could be really interesting, but after touring dozens of churches in the last few weeks I knew it would all be a blur.

Out on the Town in Toledo

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After four hours on a bus with, like, the Valley Girls from Colorado, we arrived in Toledo around 5:00 pm.

I had suggested Toledo when Lynn and I were exchanging emails about the trip.  I dimly recalled from my Jewish education that Toledo was a center of medieval Jewish mysticism.  I can’t say I felt any mystical vibes there, but there were definitely many Jewish—and Islamic—references.  Of course, any actual Jews and Muslims had been expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, but the city did its best to attract tourists based on its religious diversity of 600 years ago.

To sum up the weather in Toledo in one word, I would use the word “gloom.”  It was gloomy all day, with rain off and on, and dark at 6:00 pm.  Dark in the way of someone flipping off a light switch, not in the way of a slow, sweetly colorful gloaming.

I loved it.  I had loved Granada for its sunniness, and now I loved Toledo for its dreariness.  I’m flexible like that, and it’s a really good trait if you’re a traveler because you never know what you’re in for.  You have to roll with changes and surprises; to be delighted by them is even better.

We were famished after our long journey so we popped out onto the street to see what we could find to eat.  Everything in Toledo seemed to close at sundown.  Stores, restaurants, even the street lights, if there were any, were turned off.  This made it difficult for us to find our way around—not that we had any difficulties getting lost in the brightest daylight.

We saw a light at the end of a street and walked toward it.  It was a very unappealing-looking tourist restaurant with the same sign we’d seen elsewhere advertising pizza, hamburgers, schnitzel and sauerkraut, and other dishes that could be defrosted in the microwave for tourists from various gastronomically unadventurous countries.

But it was the only thing open, so we went in.  We were the only customers, it being “only” 6:30, and the kids who ran the place seemed flustered.  What could these tourists possibly want at this time of day?

“Oh look,” Lynn said, pointing at the oily menu, “They’ve got mussels.  Surely those wouldn’t be frozen?  And they come with chips.”

“Will they be chip chips, or crisp chips?” I wondered aloud.  Chips, to Brits, mean what Americans call French fries, while crisps are what Americans call potato chips.

“Ooh, let’s find out!” Lynn enthused as we tried for 15 minutes to flag down one of the teen employees who were loitering in a clutch at the bar.  The mussels with chips arrived, along with a bottle of bubbly, and here’s what they were:

The mussels appeared to be smoked, and they were artistically (possibly accidental) arranged on top of potato chips, with a brownish red sauce poured over it all. Lynn looked dubious but after tucking in we both agreed it was delicious.  Of course we were very hungry, but so what.  The house cava or brut or prosecco or whatever it was cost about 5€ and was excellent.  As I’ve lamented before, why can’t we get good cheap house and happy hour wines in America?  It’s just not fair.

A tour bus appeared outside and about 75 Spanish-speaking tourists who appeared to be retirees poured in.  Every single one ordered a cup of tea.  “Not one ordered a beer or a glass of wine,” I observed.  “Maybe it’s an AA convention?”

“They’re pensioners,” Lynn answered, “on a package tour, and tea is included but they’d have to pay extra for a beer.”

I’ve been on package tours, and on none of them did we talk as garrulously as this group.

Suddenly, at some invisible signal, they all started to file out.  A woman explained as she passed us that they were on a high school reunion trip.  She said this rapturously, as though it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.

Bless her. Being on a bus with my aged high school class would be a nightmare to me.