Paella, Paella, Paella!

paellaStella, Stella, Stella!  Oh, oops, wait, that’s from a movie. Never mind. Back to the paella. Spain is a great country for paella. If you like paella, that is. I have to confess I’m not a huge fan, especially since the ones I encountered were mostly seafood versions. And, no, I don’t like seafood…unless it’s in a Japanese restaurant in the form of sushi.

So I had high hopes for this dish, a homemade vegetarian paella, served up by our hosts at La Casa Magica in Villatuerta. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, the dish was certainly flavorful, the veggies fresh, and it was quite filling. I selectively dug out the rice and veggies I like most and made a meal out of that, along with the ubiquitous bread that was everywhere with every meal (or so it seemed).

The most enjoyable part of the dinner, as with most evenings, was the company that we enjoyed surrounded by citizens of a variety of nations from as close as France and as far away as Asia. There was Henry and Alba, originally from Venezuela but now residing in Canada, Amy from South Korea, Essa from Finland (Essa seemed to be rather fond of Amy, but it didn’t seem she was reciprocating), and the trio from Killarney in Ireland, among others.

We had already met “Ireland” (as we called them) along the trail thanks to the decorative ribbons on my backpack. Being that I travel most frequently with Lindblad Expeditions, I have a multitude of their blue and yellow ribbons (which they provide to better identify your luggage during group airport transfers) and are – I’m told – based on the flag of Sweden where Lars Eric Lindblad (Sven Olaf’s father) was born. It turns out they’re also the colors of Killarney, Ireland, and “Ireland” wondered if perhaps I hailed from their hometown. Alas, I do not, although I am of Irish descent. (My mother’s family immigrated to the U.S. during the great potato famine in the mid-1800s). While one of her relatives has done a genealogy, I don’t remember most of the details so I can’t say whether we might actually be from Killarney. Too bad I’m not, for the young-ish male third of “Ireland” was quite handsome.

Yes, we really did refer to people by their country (or town). it was easier to remember. And, being a horror writer, it reminded me of the movie “Zombieland” where the characters referred to each other by their hometowns (like Columbus and Tallahassee) lest they become too familiar with and attached to one another. Not that I was expecting the zombie apocalypse to occur while we were on the Camino, but I certainly had ample opportunity to let my mind wander while walking, concocting all sorts of scenarios for future horror stories. Like, what if that paella dish – easily two feet across – had been a zombie’s dream: brain paella. Hmm Hmm Good.

Advertisements

Giving Thanks

It’s cliche to be expressing thanks this time of year, but today – after a busy morning running around followed by a mid-afternoon nap in the big overstuffed chair – I awoke to two cats draped across my lap, purring. And I felt thankful. Thankful for small furry bodies keeping me warm on a rainy day. Thankful for their gazes which tell me that I am their whole world.

So I’d like to thank all the felines who came before who have shared their companionship and love…and their lessons about life and death…with me.

KC

To K.C., my first cat when I was a teenager. He loved to annoy my mother by sleeping on the clean linen and taught me that I would do pretty much anything to save my cat – including climbing out onto a slippery roof to retrieve him. He was the first to teach me that hearts can be broken from many miles away: he’d gone to live with my sister because I wasn’t able to keep him and passed away without me learning about it until later. (That’s my sister in the picture.)

Lovely

To Lovely, who wasn’t even my cat. She wandered into the basement one day while I was doing laundry. Emaciated and weak, she cried for attention. Sucker that I am, I took her to the vet and found that she had cancer. I’d never seen her in the neighborhood before so I can only assume that her owners, discovering her illness, had tossed her out like garbage. So I felt it my duty to give her peace with caring human hands holding her as she passed. It was the wonderful staff at Broadway Pet Hospital who dubbed her Lovely. They didn’t want her to die unnamed or unloved. Only in my life for a few days, I believe it was her task to teach me about death firsthand, preparing me for the time three years later that I would have to let go of Indy, who I had raised from kittenhood.

Indy1To Indy, my first cat as an adult. I found him at a pet store marked down multiple times from $9.99 to $3.99. He was the smartest cat I’ve had, able to open drawers and cupboards, digging out toys that I had hidden away. At night, he lay on my right side. I would drape my arm across his body and he would wrap his tail around my arm. He taught me the true, and sometimes expensive, responsibilities of cat ownership.

marian1To Marian, who taught me that I had enough love for more than one pet at a time. She would sit in my lap while I was on the computer and rub her slobbery face all over my hands while I typed. (Yes, cats can slobber.) And she taught me guilt. The day before she unexpectedly died from a blood clot, I’d been very busy and kept pushing her away, unable to give her the attention she craved. There was no time to apologize to her, only to tell the vet to end her suffering as quickly as possible. I’m sorry Marian.

FluffyTo Fluffy, who I took in as an elderly feline on behalf of an elderly friend who could no longer care for her. She turned out to be sick, so our time together was short, but it was long enough for many laughs, like the times – completely oblivious that there was already a cat sitting on my lap – would climb right on top of that cat (usually Annie).

 

AnnieTo Annie, who taught me that it’s the cats who are in charge. She would sit on the floor halfway in between the couch and the computer desk…and wait. When she felt that I had spent a sufficient amount of time at the computer, she issued her demands: a series of sharp “MOWS” (not meows, mows) until I obeyed her and sat on the couch, so she could sit on my lap. She had deep maternal instincts, helping to raise Turtle and Bender. She was the only cat who missed those who had passed before her, looking for them in their usual hidey spots.

And, of course, to Turtle, who I’ve written of many times before. She taught me that your soul mate is not always the same species as you.

And to Ariel, who I lost last month. She taught me that a single act of kindness can change your entire world.

You can see photos of Turtle and Ariel in earlier blogs.

BoysTo Bender and Paco, thank you for being with me today. What would I do without your head butts and forehead licks, Bender? And your nose rubs, Paco? I hope that I can do whatever is needed to make your lives better. We will always have love in this house.

And lest I forget the people:

Thank you friends and family. Thank you to the childhood friends who found me on Facebook (yeah, Facebook can be a huge sucking waste of time, but I’ve reconnected with many people important to my past. It’s also giving me a chance to learn about my nieces and nephews who grew up halfway across the country and a way to get to know my two sisters-in-law.)

Thanks to the friends who found themselves terrific spouses who I’m lucky to also count as my friends.

Thanks to the friends I’ve made in my world travel with Lindblad Expeditions. I look forward to traveling with you again.

Thanks to all of those friends and relatives who have raised intelligent, outspoken, independent, and interesting children. It gives me hope for the future.

Thanks to those of you who have bought my e-books. I hope that I’ve entertained you.

And many thanks to the ancient Mesopotamians for inventing beer.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part II)

Two years ago this week I was in Antarctica, the place of my dreams, stark and cold as it was.  This past week, I’ve watched my trip DVD a couple of times and been wanting to go back. It is a place which possesses a mystical lure that can’t be explained or understood…unless you feel it too.

This week I also took a chance and submitted a name proposal to the United States Geological Survey (specifically, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names). Yes – you can propose names for geological features (glaciers, bays, inlets, coves, etc.) in Antarctica which do not already have one. But there are rules. And they’re very strict. I knew that when I submitted my proposal. I knew it would be rejected for violating their rules, but I did it anyway. One never knows for sure what the answer is until they ask the question.

So I proposed naming the glacier at Brown Bluff (our last stop on the frozen continent) Turtle Glacier in honor of my beloved cat.  As you can guess though, pet names are one of the big no-no’s on their rule list. But like I said, I tried it anyway. For Turtle.

It took them two days to reject it. So be it. At least I tried.

As I once saw on the internet somewhere: “cats operate on the principle that it never hurts to ask.”  So…kisses to you Turtle. I miss you.

Dance when you can, and always ask questions…even when you know the answer is no.

And now…to a replay of “Dancing in Antarctica – Part II”  I hope you enjoy.

Our first landfall on the Antarctic Peninsula was later the same morning as my first time on the ship’s treadmill.  As I walked back to my cabin, exhilarated for the first time in days, I didn’t think I could feel more light-hearted than I had a few minutes earlier. But when the door closed behind me, my iPod – which I had switched to shuffle mode – began to play “Hey, Hey, Hey” by Michael Franti & Spearhead.

I stopped to listen as the song reached its chorus: “Hey, hey, hey, no matter how life is today, there’s just one thing that I got to say, I won’t let another moment slip away.”

I began to dance. Not a metaphoric dance like on the treadmill. A real dance. I kicked off my running shoes and danced all alone there in the privacy of my cabin. Head bopping, feet tapping, arms waving, fingers snapping, hips swaying.  When the song stopped, segueing into some other tune I don’t remember – I hit reverse and danced some more.

Dancing 1 I think it was the chorus, not just the beat, that struck a chord in me.  Even as I refused to give in to the hope that my beloved pet was still alive and waiting for me, I knew there was nothing I could do. I simply had to have faith, and allow myself to do just what the song said: “not let another moment slip away.” I’d come all this distance, spent all this money. I needed to savor every minute, every second. To that end, I made another decision.

So, after breakfast, when I dressed in my fleece and parka and big ole’ waterproof boots, I put another piece of equipment in my pocket: the iPod. Following a short zodiac ride to shore there at Neko Harbour, I pulled out my iPod, put in my earbuds, and hit “play” to again hear Franti’s “Hey, Hey, Hey.”  And I danced. Yes, right there, in front of the other tourists, the ship’s crew, and…the penguins. With one colony of gentoos on my left, and another up the hill, and who knows how many penguins waddling and tobogganing past me, I danced. I didn’t care if I looked like a complete and utter fool, or if my dancing wasn’t graceful. Hey – it’s not easy dancing in knee-high insulated boots. I certainly got a lot of attention. People took pictures of me; the National Geographic videographer shot some footage. (Yes, I ended up on the final cut of the video provided to the guests – to their amusement or maybe their annoyance – who knows which).

Dancing 2 I didn’t care about any of that. My feet were on Antarctica – the mainland (peninsula), not just on one of the islands which, depending on ice conditions, is as close as some tourists get. I had made it, made my dream come true. I was happy, finally happy.

By the way, no, I’ve never seen the movie “Happy Feet.”

So I kept dancing, for a little while longer, the honking of the gentoos punctuating the musical notes, before I put away the iPod and took out my camera. There were penguins to photograph…even if they weren’t dancing.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part I)

In honor of the two-year anniversary of my Antarctic odyssey and its tremendous emotional impact on me, I’d like to repost some older entries. If you’re a new follower, I hope you enjoy. Let’s explore – our minds and our world.

It’s a bit tricky to jog on a treadmill on the deck of a moving ship.  The pitch, the roll, your stride, your rhythm. You have to anticipate, to compensate as your foot lands short when the deck pitches upward, or extend your stride when the ship pitches down into the troughs.

I’m not talking about those massive cruise ships with their massive stabilizers.  I’ve never been on one and, quite frankly, have no desire to ever go cruising with 4000 of my closest friends.  My preference is for smaller vessels, which usually advertise themselves as eco-cruisers or expedition ships, like the 367-foot long, 148 passenger National Geographic Explorer.  The Explorer, too, has stabilizers of course, but the ship is small enough for you to feel the ocean, to connect with it in a way impossible on big ships. That may not always be a good thing – barf bags anyone?  But when the swells are just right, it’s like being rocked to sleep in a hammock while the slap of the waves against the hull, the faint hum of the engines, and the cries of the trailing seabirds become your background music.

But there’s no closing your eyes, losing yourself in any music, when jogging on this treadmill. (Yes, I like to jog with my eyes closed. That’s why you’ll find me inside on a treadmill and not outside, bothered by those pesky worries about running into traffic…or off a cliff.)  But even when safely ensconced on a treadmill, there are times when I won’t, or can’t, close my eyes.  Sailing alongside the Antarctic Peninsula is one of them.  If there was ever a vote taken for best jogging scenery, I think Antarctica would win.

Image

Imagine yourself up on the Explorer’s Wellness Deck, just below the Bridge Deck, your feet rising and falling with the ship as it runs through the waves, gliding past dark, jagged peaks coated in striated patterns of snow scarred by avalanches. I dare you to close your eyes.

I only wish I had discovered this joy sooner than halfway through the trip.  As I wrote in an earlier posting “Healing Through Horror” I’d been very upset by leaving behind my terminally ill cat, Turtle, and it took me many days to recover my emotional stability, to truly revel in this adventure I had embarked upon.

But finally in the darkness of my cabin one night a tiny voice came to me telling me that Turtle was still alive despite my certainty that she had already passed. I dared not admit to that hope – lest I be disappointed upon returning home.  But it was enough of a spark to get me up early the next morning, grab my iPod, and get on that treadmill.  There to discover the joy I had been missing: music in my ears, Antarctica outside the window.  Despite the turmoil of my emotions, I found myself running to the rhythm of the waves, kicking my heels back, with a smile spreading across my face. It became a carefully choreographed dance between my feet, the ship, and the waves.  A trio of partners intertwined.

It may sound strange to many, but my favorite music genre is movie soundtracks. (I still remember the odd looks that admission earned me during a lunch time conversation with co-workers years ago.) There is no better music when it comes to motivating you to pick up your pace.  No, flowery rom-com theme music won’t quite cut it; heroic action scores – that’s the thing. And think of the irony of blasting the theme song from “Hawaii Five-O” while sailing past giant tabular icebergs ten times the size of your ship.

Still, that morning, the music – its daring, hero-infused notes – couldn’t have been more contradictory when it came to the scenery: Star Trek [2009], scored by Michael Giacchino.  But maybe not. What could seem as alien, as far away as outer space to the average person? Antarctica. More importantly, it fit my soaring mood.

Give the full soundtrack a listen. Especially the End Credits. See if that rise, the way the music crescendoes at the 4.5” mark, doesn’t make your feet faster, your breath quicker.  All the while surrounded by a myriad of seabirds: albatrosses, petrels, gulls, fulmars, and shearwaters, who fly past the windows, wheeling and diving, dancing – like you – with the joy of freedom in Antarctica.

Fellow Travelers (Part II)

ImageKeeping with last week’s theme of introducing you to some of the folks I’ve met on my travels, this week I’d like to introduce you to Bruce Fryxell and his Flickr pages.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bfryxell/sets/

Bruce was one of the “Houston Nine” as I called us – the unlucky few to nearly miss catching our ship to Antarctica back in 2012. An accomplished photographer, Bruce also took the same Baja trip I just recently did, but in 2013. While Bruce doesn’t yet have his Baja photos up on Flickr, I strongly encourage you to check out his Antarctica work. And be wowed.

 

(That’s Bruce – standing – in action in the Falkland Islands.)

Fellow Travelers (Part I)

ImageTraveling is a joy. Not just for the places you see, but for the people you meet.

On my recent Baja vacation, I greatly enjoyed the company of several other guests on board the National Geographic Sea Lion, many of whom are photography buffs and even fellow bloggers.

I’d like to take this week to introduce you to retired school teachers Grace Pitzer and her husband Paul, with whom I shared several delightful meals and shore excursions.

They’ve traveled to well over 100 countries and can regale you with many more tales than I.

Please visit their website:

http://pitzertravels.com/travel/Welcome.html

and travel blog:

http://pitzertravels.blogspot.com/

where you can see additional photos from our Baja journey. Image

 

 

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

Image The Baja Peninsula is home to a variety of endemic fauna and flora, perhaps none more strange than the Boojum. Named for a mythical creature in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” the Boojum (or Cirio, as it called in Spanish) is a tree like no other. And we were on the hunt for it.

Docking in the small town of Bahia de Los Angeles, the crew and passengers of the National Geographic Sea Lion piled into a motley assortment of cars and vans to head up into the hills in search of the fabled Boojum Forest. Our 66-year old driver, Mr. Smith (his great-grandfather was from England), was proud to tell us about his three-year-old granddaughter whose white baby shoes swung from the rearview mirror and, of course, how the Seri Indians – the original inhabitants of the Baja Peninsula – believed the trees had special powers and how the experts can not agree on whether or not the Seri deliberately transplanted the Boojums.

Several sources, among them Stewart Aitchison’s “The Desert Islands of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez,” report that the Seri believed the Boojums were once people: “giants who were overtaken by floodwaters.” Other Seri myths warn against harming – or even touching – the Boojums for fear of bringing on wind and rain.

But we did not fear the Boojums, as bizarre as they appeared. With pale green bark and yellow flowers on spindly spikes, the Boojums reached to the sky – their scarce branches twisting around one another as if they were the giants of legend beseeching the gods to save them from the flood, wringing their hands in prayer.

We ran around for more than an hour, searching for the weirdest of the weird, or the Boojum whose twisted arms perfectly framed the pale moon rising in the late afternoon sky. ImageWe ignored the spattering of rain drops and the itchy sand as we lay on our backs trying to get the perfect shot encompassing the Boojum’s height. (They are slow growing plants, possibly just a few inches per year; a fifty foot tree could be more than a century old.)

We even ignored the warnings. Okay – I did. Threading my arm through those spiky spindles, I touched the Boojum. Nothing terrible happened. The bark felt sort of like that of a birch. And it felt strong and sturdy.Image I told the Boojum it was beautiful. (Yes, I talked to the tree…call me weird.) I don’t remember all that I said, but I did ask if it wouldn’t mind sharing its strength and longevity.

Now that I’m back home in the midst of what’s promising to be the worst California drought, I’m thinking maybe I should have asked the Boojum for some rain too.