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I’m Alive!

1 Apr
The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

Atop the London Eye - a sort of Ferris Wheel - looking down on the Thames.

Atop the London Eye – a sort of Ferris Wheel – looking down on the Thames.

I may be alive but I am not entirely awake, alert or enthusiastic. That’s what a whirlwind 5 days in London will do to you.

But, while I may not be terribly alert yet, I am definitely basking in the remembered glory of our trip. We had a marvelous time. Spent five hours in the Tower of London, a couple hours in Westminster Abbey, several hours in the British Museum and the National Gallery, one hour in a pod of the London Eye, and countless hours on the underground.

But that’s not all! We attended an Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (amazing) and visited Paddington Station because Paddington Bear is a favorite in our family. We watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and ate at pubs and did a little shopping. We saw Wicked, survived crossing London Bridge, and I even got to relax and read a book for a little while in St. James’s Park with the pelicans.

The many birds of St. James's Park.

The many birds of St. James’s Park.

I will be writing about the whole trip for the newspaper so I will leave the main storytelling until then but I wanted to let you know I’m still around and that more will be forthcoming in a couple of weeks!

For now, a photo or two – albeit not fabulous ones – and an assurance that I am, indeed, alive.

PS – please read this entire post with a British accent. It will make things so much more interesting.

Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge.

Fish and Chips - of course!  Along with mushy peas.  My husband had Chicken Masala.

Fish and Chips – of course! Along with mushy peas. My husband had Chicken Masala.

A Long Post About A Secret Island

29 Oct
En route to the island.  A friendly face.

En route to the island. A friendly face.

This summer, for the first time ever in my life, I visited an island in Washington State which I had never before had the opportunity to visit. Now don’t get me wrong, there a many islands in the San Juan archipelago that I have not been to – after all, there are 172 named islands and a person without a boat of their own can’t really be blame for only visiting a handful of them.

Do you see what I see?  Not a great photo, but still cool to see.  Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles.  We'd see them often from our house.

Do you see what I see? Not a great photo, but still cool to see. Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles. We’d see them often from our house.

I’ve been to all of the major ones which have ferry service: Orcas (of course I put that one first), San Juan Island, Shaw and Lopez. Oh, wait. I might not have been to Shaw, come to think of it, I can’t remember for sure. I know I was on Lopez a few times as a kid with the library kid’s program doing puppet shows over at their library, and I’ve been to San Juan several times as well. Beyond that I’ve been to Sucia, Matia, and Jones, all of which are entirely owned by the Washington State Parks. Oh, and I’ve been to Indian Island (formerly known as Jap Island – they went from one politically incorrect name to another). Out of 172, that’s not very many.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Well, now I can add another island to that list. Only I can’t name it for you. Why, you ask?

Because the inhabitants don’t want to be known.

This island has no ferry service. You can only get there by plane or small boat. Or big boat with a smaller boat thrown off the side.  It has no electricity, though many people do have generators and/or solar panels. It has no stores. No paved roads. No internet cables, phone lines, annoying telephone poles that mess up one’s view. Some of the people do have cell phones and wireless internet.

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The island does have a public school with 8 students, which I THINK only goes up through 8th grade. Most families seem to either move off the island when their kids are in high school or send them to live with friends or family elsewhere. Either that or they send them to boarding schools. The school is under the overview of the Orcas school district, and back when I was a student on Orcas students on this mysterious island used to send their kids to Orcas every day for school, though no one seems to do that anymore. They have a one room schoolhouse with a nice library and a separate computer building that the locals can pay a monthly fee to use.

A not great photo of the schoolhouse.  It's hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck - even if it is moving slowly!

A not great photo of the schoolhouse. It’s hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck – even if it is moving slowly!

There is an airstrip on the island and a post office though the mail boat only comes three days a week. There are several unmanned farmer’s stands, working on the honor system. And the farms sell their wares at farmer’s markets on other islands. They have many social gatherings – I think some sort of craft fair had been going on when we were there. I know they have picnics and musical gatherings and poetry readings – lovely, “old-fashioned” stuff like that. (I wish I had more opportunities to do things like that!)

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach.  No, we can't show you the note because it would give away the name of the island!  But it was a really cool discovery!

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach. No, we can’t show you the note because it would give away the name of the island! But it was a really cool discovery!

They do have a self-governing system. Two islanders are part-time county road workers and they take care of the few roads that are considered county roads. There are no road signs, in fact, no signs whatsoever. There is a public county dock that anyone on the island can use. You can’t tie your boat up to it but you can load and unload there and then you have to anchor out or, like the residents, have your own buoy that is safely anchored. There is only one other dock on the island and it’s privately owned. No more are allowed by the islands own self-governing system. Here’s another interesting fact: only 1 indoor toilet is allowed per household, though you may have as many outhouses as you may like! This may not be strictly followed, but it’s the official law.

The necessary outhouse.

The necessary outhouse.

The private dock.  It's taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

The private dock. It’s taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

Also on the rule books is that there is to be no sharing of your own utilities with the neighbors, so if you own solar panels or a generator, it’s yours alone. My insider says that he knows this rule is broken, but for whatever reason, it’s the official stand. The police will visit the island, but only if they have to, which is not very often. An ambulance of sorts is manned by islanders who have been trained and you can buy Med-flight memberships for absolute emergencies. One very cool thing about that is that the islanders will pay for a family to be members if they can’t afford it. There is a tanker truck to haul water for big fires and there are three trailers with water to hook-up to which are stationed around the island at various points.

See the solar panels?

See the solar panels?

If residents have propane heaters, refrigerators, hot water heaters, or stoves, they have to haul their own gas and propane in their boat or have the island’s water taxi pick it up for them for a nominal fee. The mail delivery guy who lives on the island will also pick up groceries or pharmacy supplies or hardware store stuff for residents.

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This island is about 3600 acres. It has about 100 permanent (year-round) residents and about quite a few more houses that are used only seasonally. The population actually doubles in the summer, especially on the weekends. It has one main road which kinda loops around but doesn’t even cover the entire island. It is navigable at speeds not to exceed about 10mph. Not because they like to make up rules like that but because to go any faster is to risk life and limb and gas tank. The roads are full of potholes and surprising bumps, twists and turns and gorgeous views.

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The island vehicles are, for fairly obvious reasons, old beaters. If you’re going to ship a car or truck over, you’re not going to ever want to do it again. Many of the car’s doors have long-since disappeared and one head light is quite the norm. My insider borrowed a truck one night years back, and had to use a flashlight after dark – they started out with a headlight and then it shorted out. Oh, and by the way, the road is one lane only.

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This means that you can drive along it, your windows rolled down on your old beater truck, and literally grab a hold of the vegetation along the road if you so desire. The evergreens, salal bushes, Scotch Broom, Oregon Grape, ferns, daisies, blackberries and salmonberries are close enough to pick a bouquet. And you’re going slowly enough to maybe even fill your bucket for a blackberry cobbler!

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Of course all this one-lane, super-slow driving means that if you run into another car coming your way you – or he – have to back up through said twists and turns and bumps and holes until you can find a place in the road where you can pull off. There are quite a few turn-offs, but still, one needs to be good at backing…which I am not.

Let’s just say that if I was driving there I’d most likely be dead pretty quick.

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Most people, for obvious reasons, get around on bicycles. Which is another reason to drive slowly. There also may be chickens in the road. Or bunnies. Or goats. But there will never be deer in the road, as there are none on the island, nor are there raccoons, squirrels, mice, opossums or skunks. There are rats, though. Plenty of those. And there are owls. Lots of them. They must eat the rats. And the frogs.

Most of the residents of this island are there because they want to get away. To do their own thing. To live a sustainable lifestyle and simplify their lives. Some are there just because their anti-social. Some want to have a get-away which truly is away from everything. Those ones often are the seasonal folks who spend their winters in Seattle or elsewhere, earning the money they need to keep up their get-away.

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There are no tourists. None. Tourists are not welcome. They can’t be kept off legally, from the county road, anyway, but they sure are not smiled upon. This is not a place for a casual visit. This is a lifestyle.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd.  the beach was completely empty.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd. the beach was completely empty.

Turns out, however, that if you have an “in”…you can take a peek. So I did. With someone I know well and who, after going there for several years, finally invited me to visit. I say “finally” without bitterness! The home they have there is not winterized and so they can only be there for a few months out of the year and even then only on the weekends, due to the annoyances of real life. Even if they could be there and stay warm with their woodstove, just getting there risks your life in the swells and winds of a Puget Sound winter. There was a return trip, a year or two ago, during which this person truly wasn’t sure h’d make it. When he did, it was time to put the boat up for the winter. No more trips back and forth. No more tempting fate.

Imagine – in weather like that – what it’s like to be a permanent resident of the island! The kids who travel daily across the water for high school have to have a place to stay on the other island where they go to school. Either that or they’re homeschooled. The residents have to have enough food to make it through storms that can last for days and bad weather that lasts for weeks. They have to plan ahead, can their veggies, pray for enough protein to come their way. This is not an easy life. But it is the life they have chosen. And, by golly, they want to be left alone to do it on their own.

And so I will not name the island. But how could I resist telling you about it?!

By the way, if you know the name of the island I’m writing about…please keep it to yourself. Thank you.

PS – Thanks to my secret source for much of the information on this post!!

Can you tell what this is?  It's an ancient buoy - very cool!

Can you tell what this is? It’s an ancient buoy – very cool!

Ten points if you know what these are.  They're sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are.  Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

Ten points if you know what these are. They’re sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are. Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

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My Summer, in Photos…

8 Oct

Ok, so I still have many photos from both Orcas Island as well as from Duluth, Minnesota to post, but today you’re getting more of a grab bag. A few pictures from around home. A few from a weekend spent swimming with the fishes in Rochester, MN. A few that show the season. Enjoy!

Sunset from our back yard.

Sunset from our back yard.

We're still burning piles of dead trees from the ice storm in April.  It's been a huge process.

We’re still burning piles of dead trees from the ice storm in April. It’s been a huge process.

Two sisters enjoying the rain.

Two sisters enjoying the rain.

There was a barn fire not too far from us.  We stood in our yard and took a few photos.

There was a barn fire not too far from us. We stood in our yard and took a few photos.

The fire trucks were rushing past our house.

The fire trucks were rushing past our house.

Fun in the sun.

Fun in the sun.

I've spent many an evening sorting through old Martha Stewart magazines, dating from 1997.  Yes, I literally hurt my back moving the things.

I’ve spent many an evening sorting through old Martha Stewart magazines, dating from 1997. Yes, I literally hurt my back moving the things.

My son's day - if not his year - was made in the ferry line on the 4th of July when we saw this Delorean pull to a stop two lanes over from us.  Everyone and their dog started taking photos.  The lovely couple had come from a 4th of July parade where they show the car, all decked out like in Back to the Future.  My son got to sit in it and even pull the door closed.  He was in heaven.

My son’s day – if not his year – was made in the ferry line on the 4th of July when we saw this Delorean pull to a stop two lanes over from us. Everyone and their dog started taking photos. The lovely couple had come from a 4th of July parade where they show the car, all decked out like in Back to the Future. My son got to sit in it and even pull the door closed. He was in heaven.

The crops have gone from this...

The crops have gone from this…

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...to this...

…to this…

...to this.

…to this.

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Meep tried so hard to catch a fish with her hands.  She got pretty close!

Meep tried so hard to catch a fish with her hands. She got pretty close!

If anyone can tell me what kind of fish these are, I'd appreciate it!

If anyone can tell me what kind of fish these are, I’d appreciate it!


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The Beaches of San Juan County – Part 2

27 Aug
The Deer Harbor Marina.

The Deer Harbor Marina.

The second San Juan County beach I’m featuring is at the Deer Harbor Marina on Orcas Island. The kids and I went there with a friend of mine who still lives on the island (and who will feature in an upcoming post) when she suggested that we might enjoy visiting there. It isn’t all that far from the beach in my last post, but it is hugely different in feel – which you’ll notice from the very first photo! This is a public beach (there are very few on Orcas) and actually, land-owners own beach rights only to the high-tide mark – below that all beaches are open to the public.

So…I give you a sandy/muddy beach – entirely different from the stony, broken-shelled beach where we clammed. No clam chowder recipes this week, but this is definitely a recipe for having a great time on the beach!!

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Love this.  Sand and mud - excellent at massaging one's feet!

Love this. Sand and mud – excellent at massaging one’s feet!

NOT the same beach as the one we clammed at - totally, 100% different.  From a beach that would chop your feet up to a beach that, while slightly slimy, is soft and mushy!!

NOT the same beach as the one we clammed at – totally, 100% different. From a beach that would chop your feet up to a beach that, while slightly slimy, is soft and mushy!!

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At first I thought these were seagull tracks...but they were so large...and then I saw a heron...and figured they must be from him.

At first I thought these were seagull tracks…but they were so large…and then I saw a heron…and figured they must be from him.

Great Blue Heron - he flew about 15 feet away and then landed again.

Great Blue Heron – he flew about 15 feet away and then landed again.

Boo had fun playing by herself while her siblings took a walk further down the shore.

Boo had fun playing by herself while her siblings took a walk further down the shore.

Barnacles and mussels.  You can eat the mussels, but they're pretty tiny.

Barnacles and mussels. You can eat the mussels, but they’re pretty tiny.

A very old oyster, still stuck on the rock - isn't it cool?

A very old oyster, still stuck on the rock – isn’t it cool?

Another Hairy Chiton - I found 3 or 4 on this beach - so cool!

Another Hairy Chiton – I found 3 or 4 on this beach – so cool!

I adore tide pools!  So many wonderful things to find therein!!

I adore tide pools! So many wonderful things to find therein!!

The marina at low tide.

The marina at low tide.

I posted this picture last week, but I really love it and this is the beach where I took the photo.

I posted this picture last week, but I really love it and this is the beach where I took the photo.

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The Beaches of San Juan County – Part 1

20 Aug

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Okay, so to be truly “The Beaches of San Juan County” I’d need to have a much better sampling of various islands, plus I’m including one beach from Island County as well, but while we were on vacation, we visited a total of 8 beaches, and I loved every minute of it!  Most of the beaches were on Orcas Island, but one was on another island, a much smaller and rather secretive island, which I am not going to name but which will feature – nameless – in an upcoming post!

This was the beachiest trip that I’d been on for years! I have too many pictures to make this just one post – in fact, it will have to be even more than two.

Truly, I love beaches. Not the movie – though I liked that okay, much to my husband’s bewilderment – but the places. The physical, rocky, shores of the ocean.

Note I said “rocky”. I’m not as much of a fan of sandy shores.

I found, on our recent vacation on Orcas Island, Washington, that even though I grew up there, I’d forgotten – or, more likely, never spend much time thinking about the fact – that not all beaches are created the same. I mean, I knew about the basic difference in a sandy beach vrs. a rocky/stony beach, but it had been so many years since I’d been on any other sort of beach, that I’d forgotten that such a thing existed.

The first beach for your perusal today is a private beach on Orcas where we went (with permission!) to dig clams. And I’ll even give you my sister’s recipe for clam chowder that was absolutely the best I’ve ever had in my life.

No, not a beach you want to walk barefoot on!!  You'd be cut to ribbons.  Even my flipflops suffered a bit.  The entire beach is like this - broken shells, barnacles, and yes, a few pieces of beach glass.  But, apparently, the clams like it!

No, not a beach you want to walk barefoot on!! You’d be cut to ribbons. Even my flipflops suffered a bit. The entire beach is like this – broken shells, barnacles, and yes, a few pieces of beach glass. But, apparently, the clams like it!

Basically the same, only an underwater shot.  It's clear water, isn't it?  That is, until you dig in on a clam search, then it's murky - for a few minutes.  It was a wonderful beach to go wading on, as you could see so much - many Dungeness and rock crabs (the big ones came out as the tide came in) and hermit crabs.

Basically the same, only an underwater shot. It’s clear water, isn’t it? That is, until you dig in on a clam search, then it’s murky – for a few minutes. It was a wonderful beach to go wading on, as you could see so much – many Dungeness and rock crabs (the big ones came out as the tide came in) and hermit crabs.

This beach was actually a cove, and for the whole half-circle the water was wonderful - and not even very cold, it was such a sunny and warm day.

This beach was actually a cove, and for the whole half-circle the water was wonderful – and not even very cold, it was such a sunny and warm day.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #1: Nope.  Not a clam.  An oyster.  Back into the water it goes.  Yes, oysters are marvelous to eat, but not what we were after that day.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #1: Nope. Not a clam. An oyster. Back into the water it goes. Yes, oysters are marvelous to eat, but not what we were after that day.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #2: The tasty, delicious Butter Clams!  It's not a fast or easy way to get one's dinner, but it's worth it in the end.  The pioneers on Orcas often supplemented their diets with clams - often to the point where their primary protein WAS clams.  Can only imagine the time and effort that took.

The tasty, delicious Butter Clams! It’s not a fast or easy way to get one’s dinner, but it’s worth it in the end. The pioneers on Orcas often supplemented their diets with clams – often to the point where their primary protein WAS clams. Can only imagine the time and effort that took.

My sister, my nephew and his family, oh, and Boo.

My sister, my nephew and his family, oh, and Boo.

My two favorite Minnesota boys hard at work.

My two favorite Minnesota boys hard at work.

Even Boo got in on the hard work - for a while, anyway.

Even Boo got in on the hard work – for a while, anyway.

Sometimes it's a group effort!

Sometimes it’s a group effort!

You have to dig quite deep to get to the good stuff.

You have to dig quite deep to get to the good stuff.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #3: This is not a shellfish!  At first I thought, "Oh, a rock that looks just like an egg!"  And then I picked it up only to discover that it was an egg.  A seagull?  Not sure, but it did not make it into our take-home treasure box!!

Shellfish Identification Lesson #3: This is not a shellfish! At first I thought, “Oh, a rock that looks just like an egg!” And then I picked it up only to discover that it was an egg. A seagull? Not sure, but it did not make it into our take-home treasure box!!

The youngest member of our expedition did not enjoy herself as much as the rest of us.  Her Uncle Sailboat King kept her occupied for a LONG time, further up the beach.

The youngest member of our expedition did not enjoy herself as much as the rest of us. Her Uncle Sailboat King kept her occupied for a LONG time, further up the beach.

Baby starfish?  Or just naturally that small always?  Not sure.

Baby starfish? Or just naturally that small always? Not sure.

Shellfish Identificatino Lesson #4: A Hairy Chiton, a mollusk - though not an edible one.  At least, I assume it's a shellfish.  I'm no expert, so don't quote me for a research paper on this!  There's a teeny Limpit clinging to the rock, showing just beneath the hairs on his upper center.

Shellfish Identificatino Lesson #4: A Hairy Chiton, a mollusk – though not an edible one. At least, I assume it’s a shellfish. I’m no expert, so don’t quote me for a research paper on this! There’s a teeny Limpit in the hairs on his upper left.

Very gritty mud.

Very gritty mud.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #5: This is a Cockle...yes, it's a clam, and yes, I understand that it's tasty, but apparently they're a pain in the rear end to clean...so, we ditched all the cockles we dug up.  Which, sadly, was rather a lot.

Shellfish Identification Lesson #5: This is a Cockle…yes, it’s a clam, and yes, I understand that it’s tasty, but apparently they’re a pain in the rear end to clean…so, we ditched all the cockles we dug up. Which, sadly, was rather a lot.

Sorry that this isn't a better picture.  Guess where we found this guy?  INSIDE OF A CLAM!  He must have gotten in when he was tiny and then could never get out - or chose not to.  He was practically shell less and albino and fat and he couldn't really walk too well.  We let him go into the water, but I have a feeling that his life was not going to be a long one.  Fascinating, though...

Sorry that this isn’t a better picture. Guess where we found this guy? INSIDE OF A CLAM! He must have gotten in when he was tiny and then could never get out – or chose not to. He was practically shell less and albino and fat and he couldn’t really walk too well. We let him go into the water, but I have a feeling that his life was not going to be a long one. Fascinating, though…

A beach is a perfect place for a wee boy to get wet and explore and have a marvelous time!!

A beach is a perfect place for a wee boy to get wet and explore and have a marvelous time!!

AND NOW, WHAT YOUR MOUTH IS WATERING FOR: MY SISTER’S RECIPE FOR FABULOUS CLAM CHOWDER! (Is it as good with canned/jarred clams? Probably not, to be honest, but if you like chowder, why not give it a try?!!)

Here’s the e-mail I got from my Island-Living Sister:

My recipe for clam chowder -

Bring enough shovels! Dig clams! (Butter and/or Horse clams) Remove from shells, leaving the empties on the beach. Clean, making sure to slice the neck in half lengthwise down both valves to rinse it all out, keeping what liquid there is from the clams and grind! (You will not have all the liquor from the clams when you clean them on the beach.) Set aside.

I do it all in one big pot so you get the bacon stuck-on bits to later end up in the chowder.

Brown bacon, lots, remove to a paper towel to drain

Onion, chopped, added to the bacon grease until tender, remove to drain if you like

3 or 4 potatoes, diced to the size you want to eat. Put in the large pot. Add back in the onions if you took them out. Add your clam liquor if you have any. Cover with enough water to cover potatoes and onions. Bring to a boil until potatoes are almost done.

Add clams, 2 cups or more, or a couple of cans if you can’t dig your own clams!

Add 2 cans evaporated milk, or more if making quite a lot

Salt and pepper

Heat to almost a boil, and it should be done.

I, GRETCHEN, HAVE ONE CAVEAT TO ADD: IF YOU ARE CLEANING YOUR OWN CLAMS, YOU MUST HAVE A STRONG STOMACH! The smell is rather strong…and it’s all a little overwhelmingly beachy!! BUT…it does NOT taste like the beach at all. It’s marvelous!!!!!!!

MANY THANKS TO MY SISTER FOR ALL HER HARD CLEANING AND GRINDING AND COOKING WORK SO THAT WE COULD ALL ENJOY SUCH A WONDERFUL MEAL!!!!!!!!!!! My brother-in-law made fresh bread for us, too, which was also fantastic! I just wish I’d taken a picture of the finished product. I was so excited to eat that it never occurred to me!!!

PS – Be careful if you are ever clamming and/or oystering (is that a word?!) to check first on something called Red Tide, a potential lethal algae bloom in the water that effects shellfish and the people who eat them! Sadly, my nephew’s wedding this coming weekend was supposed to include 400 oysters…but, due to Red Tide, will include zero. So sad!!!

Orcas Island Photos!

13 Aug

I’ve got a lot of photos for you today. These are mostly water-related pictures, taken on or around Orcas Island, Washington, where I grew up. We spent about two weeks there in July. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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Just around the corner from the ferry dock on Orcas.  I've always loved this view.

Just around the corner from the ferry dock on Orcas. I’ve always loved this view.

I love sail boats.

I love sail boats.

Mt. Baker, taken from North Beach.  This was the view from our living room when I was growing up.

Mt. Baker, taken from North Beach. This was the view from our living room when I was growing up.

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Low Tide.

Low Tide.

Mt. Baker and part of the Cascade Mountains, as taken from the ferry boat en route to Anacortes...and back to reality after two weeks of a wonderful vacation.

Mt. Baker and part of the Cascade Mountains, as taken from the ferry boat en route to Anacortes…and back to reality after two weeks of a wonderful vacation.

I May Live on the Prairie…But my Heart is on the Beach

4 Jun

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So I’ve been thinking about Orcas Island lately, and it dawned on me that I never posted a whole lot of photos that I took there last summer. There are many things I love about Orcas, but the beach and the view of the ocean is definitely one of the biggest.

So – I give you a typical Orcas Island beach, filled with stones and tide pools, seaweed and shells – except that this one is even better in that it has a cave and a waterfall. I adore this place.

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What is it that I love, you ask? The salty tang in the air. The polished driftwood, worn down by days in the briny sea, so smooth it’s splinter-free. The limpets and hermit crabs, sea anemones and tiny Dungeness crabs that inhabit the tide pool worlds. I even love the barnacles that mark the high-tide line along the rocky cliffs (if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll see this in one photo). Even I must admit, however, that don’t like falling on the barnacles and getting my knees all bloody – I’ve done that plenty in my day. I love the stony beaches of Orcas Island – no sandy beaches for me, thank you very much! (There are a few sandy beaches on the island, but not many.) I love the tide, rolling ever onward – or outward – free of human concern and worry, simply obeying the order of the moon. In and out, in and out, in and out, twice a day forever and ever, amen.

I love the order of the tides…and the disorder of the shore.

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I remember that I loved the way my feet inside my socks inside my wet Keds (wet because a kid can never go to the beach and remain dry) would squelch all the way up the beach and along the dirt road to my house, 90 feet above the crashing waves. By the time I reached home, my socks would be all smushed beneath my feet and my toes would be raisiny and cold and I didn’t care one bit.

I loved the “Whoosh” of the Orca whales breeching off the shore – the giant exhale of their breath which we could hear from our deck and we’d come running to watch the pod pass by. How could a person not love that?

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I loved the screech of the seagulls as they dive-bombed the Bald eagles – and the patience of the eagle as he put up with it. And then, with a sudden swoop from his cliff-top perch, the eagle would leave the old, dead snag and drop to the ocean, coming up with a fish in his talons to grace his family’s table.

I loved the splash of the ocean’s spray against our windows in mighty winter storms – even that high above the sea, we’d have salt on our panes to wipe away in the following days. I loved the constant company of the waves – lulling or roaring, it was never silent in our yard because the ocean was our constant guest.

Our constant guest: and yet, really, it was we who were the guests, we who were the brief interlude between other people, other guests, other visitors to that ocean-side spot, where smoking mountains greeted us across the water on clear mornings, reminding us that we were not in charge of anything – not really. We were merely caretakers for a short time, of that little piece of magic that was ours. That little piece of Orcas I called home.

This is me, in the empty field next to our house.  That's Mt. Baker in the background and yes, it would steam and belch smoke sometimes.  My father took this photo and called it, "Bouquet for Mommy".

This is me, in the empty field next to our house. That’s Mt. Baker in the background and yes, it would steam and belch smoke sometimes. My father took this photo and called it, “Bouquet for Mommy”.

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Old bones of a giant squid?  Nope.  Just tree roots.

Old bones of a giant squid? Nope. Just tree roots.

The tide was coming in - all of the tide pools were filling up and I was close to being stranded!  Not really - I'm smarter than that.

The tide was coming in – all of the tide pools were filling up and I was close to being stranded! Not really – I’m smarter than that.

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The islands off in the distance are Matia, Sucia and the tiny one is Puffin.  Matia and Sucia are entirely parks.

The islands off in the distance are Matia, Sucia and the tiny one is Puffin. Matia and Sucia are entirely parks. Did you notice the high-tide mark of the barnacles?

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I love driftwood.

I love driftwood, all scoured by salt and sea.

Tanker and tug boat

Tanker and tug boat

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High tide line.

High tide line.

Told you there was a cave.

Told you there was a cave.

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Bull kelp.

Bull kelp.

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Behold the bounty in my daughters' hands.

Behold the bounty in my daughters’ hands.

Beach glass, collected over the years, now holds a place of honor in land-locked Minnesota.

Beach glass, collected over the years, now holds a place of honor in land-locked Minnesota.

A few nostalgic photos of our actual beach – just up the shore from the photos above. :-)

I believe my sister threw in a large rock so as to splash me and get me even more wet than I already was.  All part of the beachy fun!

I believe my sister threw in a large rock so as to splash me and get me even more wet than I already was. All part of the beachy fun!

My grandma, cooking burgers on our beach - probably 1972 or 3.

My grandma, cooking burgers on our beach – probably 1972 or 3.

The walk home from the beach was along this road. I have always had a fondness for forgotten dirt roads.

There was an old orchard at the end of the road.  Yum!  I'm the smallest one, holding my grandma's hand.

The dirt road, coming up from the beach. There was an old orchard at the end of the road. Yum! I’m the smallest one, holding my grandma’s hand.

Tunisian Turkey: A Feast to be Thankful For

21 Nov

I love this photo. A typical street in Kairouan, Tunisia, scene of my Thanksgiving, 1987.

My final Tunisian post…the Thanksgiving conclusion of a pilgrim in a new land.

We’ve all read books (or blog posts, or magazine stories), or seen movies about Americans in foreign lands feeling horribly homesick at Thanksgiving. They go to the local markets, search for turkey (settle for partridges), substitute breadfruit for potatoes and learn that they can be thankful even without cranberries. Right?

My Thanksgiving in Northern Africa didn’t even come close to such menu approximations.

And that was just fine.

I think of this as “Tunisian Blue”.

As we entered the hotel restaurant – a hotel which was far more Tunisian than Hilton – we harbored no expectations that there would be any reference to Thanksgiving. Five days in Tunisia had taught us that anything American was verboten.

A street in Sousse, Tunisia.

Having just come in from a stroll through town, where the inexplicable phrase, “between the sheets,” was shouted at us by giggling teenaged boys, we also harbored no expectations that the waiters would be overly sympathetic to our plight.

We chose to be away from home for Thanksgiving: our expectations had been changed the day we signed up.

“So,” I figured, “if I’m not even bothering to recreate the pilgrim’s meal, how about I go for something local? Something totally different; something unforgettable.”

I learned that when there is no roast turkey to be had, you opt for paella.

It came: a platter of aromatic saffron-colored rice, peppers, mysterious meats and vegetables, and several whole, baby octopus.

I wasn’t prepared for the octopus.

My traveling companions had ordered ordinary things, like French Onion Soup. I had ordered Northern Africa on a plate.

And I ate every bite.

There are many things in my life to be thankful for. Many experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world. Thanksgiving Paella in Tunisia is one of those things.

A Thanksgiving feast, indeed.

A friend of mine, along with her family, fixed a paella feast out on Orcas Island, Washington, last summer. I wish I’d been there! Isn’t her paella pan marvelous?!

In Which we Are Accosted by Scimitar-Wielding Melon-Salesmen

20 Nov


This is post #3 about my high school trip to Kairouan, Tunisia. See the previous two posts for the full story!

Our last day in Tunisia was our most exciting. But not necessarily for a good reason.

We headed out to the camel market on our final morning. No, we were not looking to buy a camel, but we were searching for an authentic experience in Tunisian life – for this market, or bazaar, was a place of vast proportions and numerous opportunities.

Picture dusty rugs on the desert ground – aisle after aisle of them – with vegetables, fruits, trinkets, pots, pans, pottery, spices, leather goods, and drinks for sale. There were animals, too: goats and sheep and, I suppose, camels, though I think they were in a different part of the bazaar. I bought a baggie of saffron for my mom. I knew it was supposed to be the most expensive spice in the world, but here it was dirt cheap! I wish I had such a good source of saffron now.

It was hot in the open-air market, and aromatic. Cinnamon and peppers and sweat filled the air. And it was full of noises. Bleats and baas, the sounds of goat milk streaming into metal cans. The call of merchants selling their wares, the din of old and wrinkled women gossiping, of young men jesting, of children laughing and crying and playing in the aisles.

We walked down row after row, being jostled and beckoned to, and then, almost as if we’d planned it, all of us stopped – after being persuaded to by the vendors – to admire something that looked like cantaloupe.

My best friend and I stood at one rug, talking with the vendors. I say “talking with” but really it was more “talking at” – they didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. I think the phrase “James Bond” might have arisen. Other than that our communication was by smiles and gestures and thumbs up.

The rest of our group stood not two feet away from us at the neighboring rug.

We watched as the vendors cut into a melon with a scimitar – using that long, curved blade to slice through the melon as smoothly as if it were butter. We laughed and they laughed and we did our bit to promote good will and international peace.

And then, suddenly, one of the laughing and smiling salesmen at our rug jumped up and grabbed my friend around the neck. He held his scimitar to her throat – the tip just millimeters from her skin – and, unbelievably, laughed.

No one in the souk looked up. No one worried or noticed or troubled about the gullible Americans and the scimitar-wielding melon-salesmen.

I stood, immobile, terrified, tongue-tied. The man smiled on and on, his gold-toothed grin so wide that I could see where his molars ought to have been. His friends, too, grinned and guffawed.

It felt like minutes passed but I suppose it was only seconds. Next to us, our traveling companions were unaware that anything was wrong, so mesmerized were they by a slick little melon-cutting exhibition going on at their rug. Bits of sweet, orange flesh flew in all directions.

And then, all of a sudden, the man released my friend. Spewing out words we did not understand, he pulled away his sword, still laughing, still flashing those golden teeth. So much laughter! So many broken melons.

It wasn’t until we headed back to the hotel, sometime later, that my friend’s aunt realized her wallet had been stolen.

It was all a diversion. And we fell into their trap perfectly.

But it makes for a great story.

Tomorrow: Thanksgiving on foreign soil…a pilgrim in a very unfamiliar land.

Caves, Colliseums, Indiana Jones…and Me!

15 Nov

This is my second post about my Thanksgiving experience in Tunisia many moons ago. Five American women in Tunisia…made for some interesting moments…

Every morning in Kairouan, Tunisia, we woke at approximately 5:00a.m. as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Turns out, the minaret in Kairouan is the oldest in the world. I neither knew nor appreciated that then, though the sound of it did add to the feeling that I was living in an Agatha Christie novel. Or a Mrs. Polifax, maybe.

A wee bit of the souk in Kairouan.

Our second day in Tunisia we chose to go to a souk. I didn’t know it at the time, but this bazaar was the exact same bazaar where Indiana Jones up and shoots that overly-zealous, black-clad, scimitar-wielding ninja-esque guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.* When we were there, there were no ninja guys to be seen. Instead there were pottery merchants and food vendors and carpet sellers, who lured us into their shop with the promise of tea and who were rather cross with me when I chose not to buy a carpet because it would cost me all the money I had and then I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for the rest of the week. Let me just say: I’d have been better off with the carpet. Far better. I could still be walking on it, or admiring it hanging on my wall. Instead I bought classy things like a clay camel bearing jugs of water and a tiny wall hanging and a tea set (okay, I still like the tea set). Live and learn, eh?

I bought this in Tunisia for my mom way back in 1987. Service for 6!


From the souk we went to El Jem, a Roman coliseum, complete with lion enclosures down beneath the floor of the arena. I shut my eyes and tried to picture the Christian martyrs, to hear their murmured prayers despite the roars of the lions in their ears. Mostly I just smelled hot, dry air and saw sand. In my memory there was hay on the floor of the crumbling lion stalls…but it’s possible that was only in my mind. Unless, of course, they brought some in to stimulate the imagination of gullible Christians like me.

The Roman coliseum at El Jem.

We kicked ourselves a couple days later when we found a brochure for Carthage in the hotel lobby. Apparently none of us had done our homework to realize that Carthage is in Tunisia. Oh, well. At least we saw one Roman ruin, albeit a lesser-known one. Perhaps it was for lesser-known Christians. The non-vocal martyrs of the Roman age. Either that or the ones who would produce less of a spectacle while being eaten by lions.

The next day we saw the fourth most holy Moslem place in the world, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). This is the oldest Moslem place of worship in Africa. Apparently seven trips to this mosque equals one hajj to Mecca. We walked around the courtyard, but we didn’t go inside. I mostly remember blue mosaics: beautiful color in that dusty land.

Tiles at the mosque.

Courtyard of the Great Mosque

Later we saw a “Camel Drawing Water from a Well” – which, in retrospect, I have no idea why it was a tourist-draw, I just know that it was a “must see” we were told. More like a “must-pay”.  (The picture in this link is an actual camel drawing water from a well in Kairouan!

We took a bus into the Sahara Desert one day for lunch at a Berber hotel. And when I say “hotel” I mean cave. Or, rather, series of caves. We walked through a dark and sloping tunnel to a coutyard, open to the sky. Surrounding us were cave openings, dark and doorless, each entered by way of a ladder propped against the walls of the cavern.**

Similar to the place we ate…


They led us to one of the biggest openings and we climbed the ladder to find a long table waiting for us. Lunch was ready. We ate meat – goat, I think. And flat bread and vegetables in a stew-like dish. I’m an adventurous eater, so I tried everything. I don’t think I left exactly full, but I left satisfied and intensely interested. I mostly remember how dark it was – such a contrast to the incandescent world I lived in. I remember looking out of the unlit cave into the bright, desert light. Everything I saw out that cave entrance was tan-colored. Everything. It was sandy. It was hot. It was far, far away from home.

No, I don’t think I was homesick…but I was intensely aware that the world I lived in, the world I knew and understood, the world I complained about and criticized like any other teenager, was actually far from the norm of all teenagers the world over. I’m not saying I realized I was blessed – for who’s to say that a Bedouin teenager living in a cave isn’t equally blessed (It’s not all about STUFF, right?) – but I’m saying I realized I needed to be more thankful.

And, in the season of Thanksgiving, to a self-centered 17 year old, that was realization indeed.

Next time: The Camel Market, where we learned that “working together” is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the land we drove through. The edge of the Sahara.


*Just to be totally clear: I’m actually not positive if the bazaar in Kairouan was the bazaar used, or if it was the bazaar in Sousse. I found references to both as being used in Raiders’ street scenes. Also, I know that “ninja” is not the right term for that guy in the movie, I just can’t think what the correct term should be!  Here’s one quote I found to be interesting on the topic of filming Raiders: “The Holy City of Kairouan in Tunisia was the Raiders of the Lost Ark filming location for Cairo. Appropriately the town’s name means “little Cairo”. For filming the scenes on Sallah’s terrace, 350 television antennas had to be removed from local buildings to present a 1930s skyline.”  It should also be noted that elsewhere I read that the lovely white and blue houses that are typical in Kairouan were not typical to Cairo, circo 1936.  I’m pretty certain that movie watchers didn’t mind…

**Picture Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home in Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s kind of like the place I ate in, only our place was far more primitive. The actual location of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house is in Tunisia and can be toured.

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