Tuesday, December 23, 2008
So you might think that the never ending tooth pain I’ve had over these past six weeks would be a strong enough suggestion that I might need to do something about seeing the dentist. By way of a little history, before moving to China last month I set a sort of regional record for the most voluntarily self-inflicted pain of the medical nature by having two crowns replaced in one week. I lost count, but I’m pretty sure I had more shots of Novocain than could be tallied on all of my digits, and I’m not missing any. But my goal, the product of careful consideration and pondering, was to avoid an air-evac to Beijing for root replacement therapy where melamine seems to be the filler of choice. So I had the crowns put on and off I went for my grand Asian adventure.
Everything was fine for the first couple of days when both teeth (rear most, left and right, bottom) hurt like hell and were sensitive to even the utterance of the word “cold.” After a couple of days the right side stopped hurting and life went on. Well, it went on fine on that side of my face, the left tooth was lagging a bit, and that bit turned into “forever.”
Six weeks later after almost dying on my trans-Pacific flight home after allowing 3 micrograms of cold yogurt to threaten to touch that tooth, and after living on 12-20 aspirin a day, I finally called ahead and warned the dental staff that my scheduled cleaning was going to require a bit more. I waited because I had a standing appointment for a cleaning and I was pretty sure that the thing was going to stop hurting, any minute now, and honestly, it did go from “how can I live the rest of my life like this” to “I can probably live the rest of my life like this because some people suffer from far worse.” I had some hope, if only the tiniest flicker.
That hope was partially dashed 34 seconds into my cleaning when the dreaded “root canal” phrase found its way into the conversation. I tried like heck to describe what was going on in non-root canal terms, but no matter whether I said it hurt all the time, most of the time or some of the time, we came right back to that alternative. Unlike most people, root canals don’t bother me – you go in, you get numb and they take those tiny gnat files and hollow out your bones. What does bother me is the middle piece – the anesthesia – because darn it, I am sick of them sticking those needles into my jaw bone. The shots on the bottom come across like they’re breaking the skin behind your ear and those on top feel like they’re creating a new tunnel into your sinus cavity. And is there anything worse than having half your face sagging enough to cause uncontrollable drooling followed by the sensation that your skin is on fire when the stuff wears off?
Well, the prognosis was “yes” and the time was “today” so I went home to think about the inevitable. A serious decision was made for me, not after the careful collection of facts and studious consideration of alternatives and options. No, it was 2 PM this afternoon for my “evaluation” which I knew was going to turn into a “procedure” as even dentists have post Christmas credit card bills to pay.
To drown my sorrows I stopped at Lowes and picked up 16 boxes of ½-priced Christmas lights and then went home to a snack of Satsuma oranges and peanut butter crackers. The Satsumas, bought yesterday at Whole Foods had given me a chuckle – “Satsuma Oranges with Stems and Leaves” as though the throwaway foliage was a benefit and not a nuisance.
I checked my phone about 1 PM and discovered that the dentist’s office was looking for me – tons of cancellations due to fear and horror, and so could I come in early? So I did a quick brushing and went on up to my doom.
Dentist offices have become so modern, comporting a Zen-like tranquility that is almost certainly necessary to hide the chamber of horrors behind the front desk. Lots of brown stone, a water feature or two, satellite radio – all better than the neon lit strip mall offices smelling of oil of cloves that I am used to. I wonder what kind of consultants come up with this decor - you almost want to schedule a mud bath and hot rock therapy after the tooth session.
I sat there filling out my pertinent patient history, again trying to make my suffering seem insignificant. Listening to ½ of the conversation the receptionist was having on the phone, it came home that times are tough right now. Most of the conversing was around cost, and how they don’t accept that kind of insurance because they are so lame, and how they’ll have to pay and get reimbursed and what the out of pocket piece would be and eventually it got around to “sure, just having the thing pulled is cheaper than root canal therapy, but we don’t do extractions.” This jibed well with what I had been told last month during my November Dental Trials of Tears – people are choosing to put food on the table instead of getting their teeth fixed.
The assistant came and collected me right in the middle of regaling the gal up front with my Chinese. We had the grim discussion, again arriving at the need for the whole shebang – there was no avoiding the inevitable. Seems there are a couple of types of dying teeth - the throbbing kind that makes you want to lie down on the carpet and grind your fingertips into the concrete slab beneath your house and the kind I have - “acute pulpitis” which leads to the first kind. The guts of the tooth die and eventually lead to an infection on the outside which eventually causes you to throw yourself on the floor.
He prepped me for the shots with topical anesthetic and his assistant put her hand on my shoulder. I asked if she was doing that to keep me from launching myself from the chair, “No”, he replied, “She’s just going to comfort you.” And sure enough, when he first bent and then broke off the needle in my mandible, she softly patted me and said, “There, there.”
Once numb we got down to business. First he fills your face up with a rubber dental dam, sort of like covering all your breathing passages with a deflated balloon. Next they jackhammer a hole in the middle of your tooth and once done, he puts on this blue ring on his finger full of tiny files, sort of the type Miguel de Morillo, 1st Grand Inquisitor of Spain had undoubtedly made popular back in the 15th century. He pulls the files out one at a time and scrapes away the inside of the crater he created a moment ago, driving deep down into the roots of the tooth. It’s an odd feeling to sense these little suckers getting stuck on some ridge that been buried in porcelain for 54 years. Even odder is the contrast between the delicate nature of the tools and the work and the times when the dentist puts his foot on your forehead to gain better leverage.
This went on for a bit and then he jammed a handful of files down in the mine shafts and took an x-ray to measure the depth. There was more filing and then a long period of grinding with a slow speed Dremel tool burr that only lasted about 3 revolutions before requiring replacement. No wonder these guys are so expensive when their tools last for about 20 seconds. Another x-ray and then many minutes of the assistant handing him what looked like little brown hairs on the end of a tool which were inserted and then packed harder and deeper. A bit of soldering and some smoke wafting up around my eyeballs, the taste of chlorine followed by the traditional scent of oil of cloves (I knew I hadn’t escaped it) and we were done. About one hour in the chair, the only problem being my jaw which had slipped out of joint due to so many elbows being jammed in the sides of it. He shook my hand, congratulated me on being such a good patient and sent me on my way.
Hours later, I did the test – swishes of ice cold caffeine free Diet Coke and no sensitivity. I might not even need those Vicodan he kindly prescribed, cancelling the Gregory House Christmas I was sort of anticipating with a mischievous gleam in my eye.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Blackie’s is one of the nicer places in town, a round building with a palapa roof and a decent menu. They used to have a guard in the parking lot that did little more than wave you in and out and then collect a tip for his careful space management. I used to fix him up pretty well monetarily, but he’s not been around for the last couple of years. The inside of the restaurant is really what makes it worthwhile – a giant mural of the local landmark – Tetakawi – and a wall of interesting paintings and photographs included that particular Frida Kahlo of her with the monkeys sitting on her shoulders. There is also some sort of stylized representation of the landing of the conquistadores in what was once the Aztec Empire that includes not only period players – Indians and Spaniards – but modern Mexican politicians. The waiters are slow and uncommunicative but the fish is great and the margaritas are large and they finish every meal with an iced glass of Bailey’s that really gilds the Lily. We get dressed up for one special night, enjoy a meal over candlelight and remind each other how glad we are to be together.
Last night I had my standard Pescado Arriero, a dish of pressed fish in a sort of poblano chile sauce. My Lovely Wife had her regular Pescado al mojo de Ajo – pressed fish in garlic and butter. The salad was crispy, the fish was delish and none of it really mattered because the margaritas are big, cold and strong. We sat and listened to some middle-aged American real estate agent loudly regale an American touristette with stories about second homes, Mexico City and low mortgage rates and chuckled at his Spanish which consisted of adding a vowel to the end of every English word. We polished off our dinners and followed up with Flan and coffee and when we finished our refill one of the waiters came over and cleared the table, evidently two cups being the limit.
The real highlight of the place though is the tiny Mexican who belts out standards in the bar on a slightly out of tune piano. When I say “tiny”, I mean he’s a wisp, and he must be 175 years old. But he has a good rhythm and he knows all the favorites from my childhood, last night interspersed with a few Christmas tunes. He wears a big sweater and a driving cap and plays hunched over, his face down by the keys. I look forward to listening to him every time I come down here and last night I dropped a good-sized bill in his tip jar to which he responded gratefully.
Today was dedicated to one last drive around the scrub looking for that last bird. That plus one last meal of Machaca and one last Magnum ice cream bar. I tore down the boats after that and now we’re shifting to going home mode. A nice thing since the place is suddenly becoming overrun with Americans. Always the norm this time of year, I’ve found this vacation to be far more enjoyable before their arrival. Perhaps a note for future trips.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
This boat is really ideal – it can easily be carried by a single person, well, a big strong person like me, it has great performance in the water and it’s even easier to put together than the two person Greenland. It’s a bit more of a challenge in terms of handling, acting much more like a traditional sea kayak in terms of speed and stability, but in idle waters, it’s simply a nice boat to float around in.
My Lovely Wife was kind enough to help me carry it around back, and even though I could have easily just thrown it over my shoulder, big strong guy that I am, I welcomed the help knowing full well I’d be lugging it alone on the return trip. I launched into the little side bay that pokes up against the back parking lot, immediately scaring off a couple of Bufflehead that were doing nothing but looking for a morning fish snack.
There is something very special about being out on quiet waters, and quiet is the word for it. Gliding along in complete silence, the only noise being the occasional dip of the paddle into the water is about as good a soul recharger as anyone could ask for. Deep green mangrove forests on both sides, a few egrets sleeping off their night’s feast in the dense thickets, gliding along in peace - words can’t help but come up short in describing just how nice a feeling comes from this.
On a whim, I took an easy left into a small cul de sac and immediately faced a grove full of birds – Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, an Eared Grebe in the water and in the middle of this was the elusive Roseate Spoonbill, sitting there in its soft pink splendor. I stopped paddling and just glided along, fumbling to get my little camera out of the baggie where I had stowed it in my life vest. I took a few pictures and watched the birds, watching me. One or two of them could not tolerate my proximity and so off they went, squawking in protest. The Spoonbill stayed until the very last moment before launching itself into the air and up and over the grove across the water. The Great Blue let out a harsh yell as if to tell it to ignore me, knowing I would be gone in a moment or two. But the Spoonbill would have none of it and it disappeared over the tree tops, not to be seen again this day. It’s amazing to me how hard such a big and bright bird can be to locate – in this environment they could be ten feet away and you’d paddle right past none the wiser.
I decided to retreat before putting the rest of the birds to flight so I zipped up my camera in its bag and headed back down the inlet.
A large group of Brown Pelicans accompanied by a handful of shorebirds was parked on the sandbar at the mouth of this leg of the bay, the same sandbar we’d crashed into a couple of days ago. This time I took the wide path around, close to the trees where the water is always deeper and escaped without hitting bottom. I passed a couple of men in boats paddling in from the sea side, one riding with his boxer sitting in the front of the cockpit, its chin resting on the combing at the front. We exchanged greetings and I fell in behind them as they headed down water towards the back of the bay.
I’m always a bit leery of other boaters in these parts, especially those with dogs in their kayaks. In general, they don’t seem to care much about the wildlife and think nothing about getting out on a sandbar and walking over towards groups of birds, putting them to flight. It irritates the heck out of me, but these guys were talking about birds as I gathered from eavesdropping and so I followed, figuring they were okay.
Coming out to the intersection of this inlet and the main body of water, I was immediately taken aback by the sight of White Pelicans resting on an emerging mudflat. Over the course of the past few days, our count of them had increased from seven to twenty-eight, a pretty amazing change compared to what we’ve seen in previous years. But this was something completely unprecedented and I purposely grounded my boat to take a moment to count them – seventy-eight, an incredible number for this spot. The other two boaters had realized there was no path around due to the shallow water and so had back tracked and taken the outside route along the groves. I followed and while coming around into the deeper water had a chat with one of them about the birds, where he lived (north of Eureka, California) and the cost of having kids in college in Colorado. I left him once I hit the deep water and headed along the mudflats, stopping again to count the Pelicans – ninety-three once the full flock was in view.
I was now out on open water and paddling into a stiff head wind. That special smell that accompanies estuarine environments that have had significant human intervention made the moment very special, but I paddled on taking in a big flock of Red-breasted Mergansers and another mixed bag of Bufflehead and Scaup. The surface of the water was that same beautiful mix of gray, white and blue that I saw out on the ocean, two days ago. When I reached the midpoint of the bay, I decided to turn around and enjoy the wind from the other direction and so I simply stopped propelling myself forward and allowed the stiff breeze to turn the boat around like a giant wind vane. Once about, the world assumed that wonderful silence you can only get from a direct tail wind.
Heading back, the kayaker I’d been talking to was out of his boat dragging it across the shallows and this put the Pelicans up in the air. I watched as they wheeled around and around, half landing in the water and half assuming a position a bit further up on the mudflat. Nice for me, they were closer and so I stopped paddling and let the wind take me to them.
They were pretty wary, some taking flight and others paddling off as I drifted by. I took some photos, trying my best to move slowly and deliberately in order to not scare them any more than they already were. They were compliant – posing both standing on the mud and paddling in a direct line back to their friends. A few didn’t take well to my presence and took off, landing off in the open water. The others just pulled themselves up to their full height and watched me drift past.
It was now getting late and I decided to start back, choosing to take the long way around the island in the middle of the bay if only to extend my trip by a few more minutes. My idyll came to a quick end though when I ran aground in about 2 inches of water, thus is the incredible flexibility of my Cooper that it can carry my bulk in almost no water at all. I got out and dragged it behind me towards deeper water; a small flock of Willet standing there in the shallows chose only to walk away, obviously feeling little threat from someone dumb enough to have to walk his boat through their neighborhood. I reached the deep stuff – twelve inches at least – hopped back in and was on my way.
I paddled past a group of Double-crested Cormorants, some still in breeding plumage who were not nearly as trusting at the Willets back by my grounding. They went off as I went by.
The silence I had been enjoying ended as soon as I came around the island and came within line of sight of the outlet to the ocean – the pounding of the surf was remarkably loud. It was quite a contrast to come from such a peaceful place to one where nature was having its way. I thought for a few seconds about braving the rough exit out into the sea, but thought better of it as the only peril I faced along my planned path was having to get out and walk, and the associated disapproval of the birds.
There used to be a fish camp here which has now also disappeared along with the oyster farmer mentioned yesterday, the only remnants being some blown down shacks, piles of shells, trash and four barking dogs. We first encountered these canine nuisances a couple of days ago when they stood across the inlet barking at us as we combed the shore for shells at the lowest tide. At the time we wondered how they survived without food or water, yet there they were looking quite healthy and judging by their barking and aggression, feeling well too. Now though, they stood on the strand and barked endlessly as I passed by. Realizing this was too good to be true – I mean, being chased by dogs in a kayak? – I pulled up and egged them on while getting a good look. It appeared as though we had one old mom dog, white muzzled and only capable of barking for a minute before getting hoarse, in league with what was probably a generation or two of offspring. Two of her sons supported her in protecting their range while the third kept running up and trying to interest his siblings in going off and barking at something else. I sat there laughing out loud and barking back at them which only served to tune them up even more. I splashed them with my paddle and they simply closed their eyes and kept on barking. As the breeze was now across my boat, I was slowly inching in closer to the shore which got me thinking what was going to happen when I got really close to them. They figured that out too and started wading into the water, getting closer to the bow. Figuring that barking was bad enough, but actually being attacked was far worse, I put the boat in reverse and backed off a bit. They stopped at chest depth and a couple of more paddle splashes sent them back to dry land.
The tide was continuing to head out and the mud was appearing in more and more places so I went back to my paddling and made my way back down the side bay to the parking lot. Along the way I took some time to drift along and push a Great Egret in front of me for five or ten minutes. It would let me get close, take off and fly ten yards and then settle back in. I watched it as it worked its way in and out of the branches, at one point spearing a small fish and then squeezing the life out of it before swallowing it whole.
A nice day all around, but the highlight had to be the dogs. Buddha continues to put those four legged monsters in the way of my salvation. First, the never ending noise of the dumb German Shepherds in our neighborhood. Second, the yapping lap dogs outside my apartment window in China. Then the endlessly barking dogs in the hills above Da Bei Temple in Haicheng, and now dogs on the beach chasing my kayak. I’m beginning to think that the message is simple – nirvana is just the other side learning to ignore our loud four-footed companions.
(click on pics to enlarge)
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The big news though concerns water, more specifically the lack of it - somewhere down the line the water stopped flowing, or in the words of the gal at Rosa’s “Los machinas de limpiendo no estan trabajado.” It sounds to me like the water treatment plant was on the fritz. We discovered this at morning face washing time when the faucet provided the sound of rushing air instead of a stream of water. Checking at the office we were given a schedule which suggested that it would be available for an hour at a time, three times a day. All this brought to mind a week long water outage many years ago that gave us the term “sculptable hair” due to the condition of our coifs after 5 days on the beach without a shampoo and it seems we might be heading that way again. The Rosa’s gal told us two days and that the effect was town-wide.
My walk around the hill out back to look for birds was nice, little flocks of Lark Sparrows and five or ten Cardinals brightened up an otherwise dreary day. A big plume of black smoke shot up across the bay while I was looking at some vultures. I couldn’t tell if it was a brush fire or something more substantial but it didn’t last long, the San Carlos Fire Department was on it in a flash.
An abandoned oyster farm sits around the back of the bay from here and I wandered through it today for the first time. There isn’t much left except for a few broken buildings and a lot of trash but the centerpiece of the site is a pile of shells – pink and white – and enormous. A lot of oysters met their end at this place, continuing a tradition that extends back into antiquity. Most of the bumps and rises along this stretch of beach are shell middens, created by the local inhabitants over the course of thousands of years. Sort of clams on the half shell on the patio for America’s earliest inhabitants. This pile is merely the modern contribution. Given that this place is finally gone, it appears that the designation of Estero Soldado as a protected ecological zone might actually be taking hold; the oyster farm was here for a long time and something finally put it to rest.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
They really do go together pretty easily if you take your time, follow the instructions and lay all the parts out on the grass. The condo cat population comes by to watch, and they really are great conversation starters with your fellow vacationers - men cannot resist their tinker toy assembly. This time we dragged Rita the gal upstairs down to the assembly site to convince her that it was a far better alternative than the inflatable boat she had been using (she later stopped us on the beach to tell us that she’d found the perfect model on their web site and had ordered color swatches.)
Once built it’s only a matter of treating my Bermuda grass bloodied knees and dragging all 62 pounds down its parking place. We discussed our next steps – boat tomorrow or throw caution to the wind and break our pattern by boating mid-morning and settled on the latter. A quick change of clothes and a gathering of the equipment and we were on our way out into the choppy sea.
As always I had elected to forego the additional work of installing the rudder and so our path was a bit of a zigzag down the coast to the entrance to the estuary behind the condos. The tides have been strange on this trip – a high-low-high combination between midnight and 8 AM followed by a big gap until a genuine low around 4 PM. Not great for birding but ideal for boating and so we cleared the bar at the entrance to the back bay with room to spare.
Floating back among the mangroves is one of the sublime pleasures of this place. You see tons of birds – egrets, herons, shorebirds – along with tiny land birds foraging in the tangles. It’s much like being in the real wild – big white waders squawking across the bow of the boat as you spook them from their daytime rest among the trees. We heard a Virginia Rail clacking off in the distance like two rocks being banged together and stopped to admire the bright yellow feet of a Snowy Egret who paused to watch us drift by. An Osprey sat on a bare snag taking apart a fish he had caught.
We stopped to chat with another kayaker on his way out and went on around the bend towards an alternative path back to our dock, debating whether it was worse to fight our way back out into the ocean or to drag the boat across the parking lot. As we turned into the side channel the decision was made for us – the boat plowed head first into a new sand bar blocking the way and the only alternative was to get out and drag the boat across it. We decided to take the hard way home, a choice that would play out nicely in a short bit.
From our grounding we came back out towards the bay that joined the ocean. Two American Oystercatchers watched our slow progress, their orange beaks glowing outlandishly.
We cleared the bar with relative ease and struck out straight when we spotted the cresting backs of the dolphin family. Their presence was a bit of a surprise as it was later in the day than they normally appear but seizing on the opportunity, we headed straight for them.
The group numbered somewhere between 8 and 12 and we settled into a spot in the center of where they were rising and diving. I have to say, that one of the most wonderful noises known to my ears is the sound of a sea mammal blowing air as they come up for a breath. It’s so primal and peaceful, all at the same time. We just sat there maintaining the point of the boat into the oncoming swells and watched them go up and down. The sea was this incredible lead gray color with ever-changing blotches of bright blue – an accurate reflection of the mottled sky over head. A calf came straight at the boat and was cut off by an adult just before reaching us. One came up and lolled on the surface, taking a look at us before returning to the deep. Back and forth and up and down, the show went on for ten or fifteen minutes. We made a couple of corrections to our orientation to keep them in front of us, managing to catch both a calf and an adult breach completely out of the water. Eventually they drifted off and we decided to call it a day, heading back to shore and our inevitable clumsy attempt to disembark without falling in the drink.
Today’s destination was Nacapule Canyon and another day of birding. The canyon lies off to the north of town and it used to be a tough slog to get there. Now though progress has brought signs and a road that encourages people to drive out with the sole purpose of tagging the rocks with gang signs. The last time we were there was the height of tourist time – Christmas Week – and it was loaded with people and almost completely bird free. But I knew it had potential as the guy who helped me on last year’s count had seen some good things there during off peak hours. On our last visit, we climbed up and over the top with Cousin Bob, coming back down a scree rock slope that ended in some rancher’s goat pens. This time less climbing and more looking was in order.
While the road has been civilized, it’s still rough in spots and the going can be slow. My Lovely Wife regaled me with stories of the old days, before mankind made its mark on San Carlos. I scanned the bushes and the road ahead, looking for that one rock that had my oil pan’s name on it. But coming out of the last wash we were presented with an empty parking area and absolute silence aside from the occasional bird chirping in the Cat Claw.
You head down a slope and then walk a flat rocky path that runs alongside a dry stream bed for the first third of the trail. Then the path heads up and eventually ends at a broad amphitheater which offers a couple of ways up and out. We stopped and enjoyed the sound of the wind through the palms and the twittering of warblers and kinglets in the brush. Something big and rough sounding added a croak or two, unseen but clearly nearby. An Elegant Trogon began to call high up and far away, giving me the one bird I had hoped to see or at least hear. A small clear pond filled a basin in the stream bed here, disappearing beneath the rocks as it began its trip down to sea level. It’s a pretty nice place if you over look the graffiti and the Doritos bags, far nicer when there are no people around. Our time sitting there listening brought to mind the other canyon here in town where we began out count so many years ago, off the back of the harbor and just over the ridge from the site where the film Catch 22 was filmed almost a half century ago. That place – palm lined and grassy had been turned into a construction debris dump on our last visit, and on this trip had become more or less impassable. A genuine loss in my book.
It was getting late and the birds were no longer complying so we made our way down and out and back to town for a bit of shopping and a quick lunch at Rosa’s. Deciding the day could not be complete without an ice cream bar, I drove us back up the main drag to the Oxxo (think Circle K) where we grabbed the 3rd world version of a Dove Bar, Magnum with Alemendras (almonds). I had a brief contretemps with a plump young man attempting to squeeze into his minivan – snacks in hand – as I was trying to pull out. Nothing lost; I barely brushed him with my rear view mirror.
Heading back home we decided to take a spin through the La Posada parking lot to assess how their renovation was coming along. What used to be the fanciest place in town has now become a bipolar vacation spot – the newly refurbished hotel towers contrasting with the seedy and shopworn main buildings which still house the sales offices. It brought to mind a tired old section of Miami Beach where the golden days of tourism were long since gone. Coming around and out of the parking lot, I said “This is prime Ani territory” and as if instantly granted a wish by Rhiannon, the Celtic Goddess of the Birds, My Lovely Wife said “Stop and back up.” There at the edge of a weedy lot was a bush full of Groove-billed Anis.
These medium sized furry members of the Cuckoo Family have become the iconic bird of our count ever since Professor Bill Heed of the University of Arizona sent us out looking in a mangrove swamp for them many years ago. We found them that day, right where he said they would be, and have had them almost every year since. Sometimes they’re easy, sitting on a garbage can along the road to town. Other times it takes a bit of a hunt. This year I’d given up but they chose not to disappoint, hanging out in their scrubby little domicile waiting for me to come along. We stopped and watched as an American Kestrel dove down among them, certainly not thinking that one of these tough guys was going to be a same-sized meal for her. She bounced off the ground and joined them on the edge of a shack next to their bush. I pulled in closer and closer and spent time just staring at their funny little dinosaur-monkey faces until I decided to leave them in peace, going about whatever it is an Ani spends a cloudy Tuesday afternoon doing, down here in paradise.
Monday, December 15, 2008
We started on Sunday, combining it with a trip down to Emplame to put the scope on whatever shorebirds might be scurrying about on the mudflats. On the first pass the tide was too high and the high areas were flooded and so after almost getting hit by a slow moving train making its way, unannounced, across the major north-south route through the Americas, we pulled behind a couple of open air restaurants to discover that one of our most reliable spots was now a shanty town dedicated to drying fish nets. So much for that, our best place for Marbled Godwits. We went back across the highway this time avoiding the now returning train by turning right in front of the tracks and heading into town.
I’ve always loved the name Empalme as it conjured the tropics – sun, beaches, lazy morning lunches of fish tacos on plastic chairs under a palapa - in my mind the very first time I heard it. I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that its true definition is “place where trains are repaired” which makes the town an eponym. Ah well, they do manage to suck the romance out of everything, don’t they?
Our goal on this random track was to find the way to the dump through the town as an alternative to our regular way which involves lots of washboard roads out in the middle of nowhere. Now you might ask why anyone would spend any of their vacation time searching for quick routes to the local landfill (in this case more of a linear dump, nothing more than trash along the road) but we know it as the one reliable location for Cattle Egret. And no bird count is complete without those little trash loving birdies.
The first thing you notice when driving the city streets is that Empalme is much tidier than Guaymas (where we had just finished searching for the apocryphal cruise ship dock), composed of little streets with tiny little single family homes nestled beneath orange and lemon trees. I wouldn’t call it a tourist destination, but it is far easier on the eyes than the mean streets down by the docks here or in China. Eventually the paved roads ran out and we continued on hard dirt lanes that must be a complete disaster every time a hurricane blows through. When we reached the edge of civilization we found ourselves back on the pavement on a grandly named boulevard called Avenida de los Americas which was split down the middle by giant power pylons. After some driving back and forth and disagreeing about the one other time we had made our way through this area in the past 15 years, we settled on a road that ended up taking us in a giant loop (when it was discovered that every side street dead-ended in the only hill in sight) back to La Avenida. We agreed to take the one road out of town that appealed to our mutual sense of direction and a half mile later we were presented with endless piles of trash lining both sides of the rutted dirt track - we were in Egret country. And sure enough dancing among the white plastic garbage bags were a dozen of them.
Just to close the loop we continued on past the dump to see if this was in fact our regular route in. We passed a friendly old ranchero driving to town on a buckboard pulled by a surprisingly fit looking bay horse. The road continued on through the desert, the estuary off to our left and Sonoran scrub off to the right. As we came out of a wash, our suspicion that this was “the road” was satisfied when the Cardon cactus forest came into view. We’ve been coming out here for perhaps ten years monitoring the condition and decline of this splendid spot and it’s always nice to see it. They are the largest of the North American cacti and stunning to see, big green giants soaring 20 or more feet into the air. But one thing had changed enough to make us wonder if this was the place – it was now fenced. It appears that the Mexican government finally wised up about this resource and decided to make it a bit more difficult to access. A good thing, no doubt.
Since our plan for the day involved making a stop at the Ley grocery store in Guaymas, we turned around and headed back the way we came. It was far easier finding our way out than it was finding our way in and this time there was no train blowing its whistle 10 feet from my car door. We drove back through town and stopped at the store, doing a running analysis of which place was worse, Ley of Guaymas or Trust Mart of Dalian. In the final tally, Trust Mart won if only because of the general feeling that you don’t want to eat anything they have on offer. I guess I have to ask though, is that really a “win”?
Heading back to our place we decided to close the loop with the dump road by coming at it from the other side, the different look of the Cardon spot was still haunting our geographical sensibilities. This is the nice thing about unlimited time and $1.50 gasoline - you can put mysteries like this to bed with only a tiny bit of dedication. When the road to the airport presented itself, we took it and headed back out into the scrub.
Last year along this road I was presented with a small flock of Eurasian Collared Doves. Non-native to North America, this species was discovered some time in the last century in the Southeast and had slowly spread across the country by establishing itself in tiny little pockets, here and there. I remember when the first one was seen in New Mexico and there was one bird in my bird feeder within the last year. Its status in Mexico is uncertain, and so I was a bit excited to find them when I did. Sure enough, there was a single bird on a wire in the same spot and I figured we’d stop and have a look at it on the way back. This is one of the coolest things about birding – on returning, they are often just where you left them.
Like everything else, this road had changed dramatically since our last visit. For one thing, the pavement was continuous from side to side along the whole length of our drive. And it stretched all the way out to the little town of San Jose de Guaymas and around its little town square. Gone was the house on the big sweeping curve into town that had the water line running across the road. Gone were the muddy and rutted washes, this was civilization at its finest. On the far side of the square though, reality came back in the form of 5 miles of dusty washboard but sure enough we found our way back to the now fenced Cardons and so the circle was completed.
Heading back to town I pulled over to have a look at that suspect Dove and sure enough it was what I was expecting. Purely on impulse I pulled across the road and onto a dirt lane that ran parallel to the wire the bird was on. Coming around a bend we found ourselves at a grain mill and decorating the wires and chutes were hundreds of these rarest of encroaching visitors. When it comes to birds, there is but one truth – find their favored habitat and you will find them. In this case, a free hand-out at the Grist Buffet.
Yesterday we headed in the opposite direction, into San Carlos for a Double Fudge Mocha Frap and out beyond into the environs. In this direction, the building boom has transformed the landscape. Even down by the sewage ponds where we found our annual Least Grebe, the hills were dotted with gaily colored homes. Out and past the old Club Med, we took the road to the village of La Manga which has evolved from a couple of shanties to an entire village of shanties; such is the inexorable march of progress. The huts have now been joined by a few travel trailers stripped of their wheels and deposited on a small plot of ocean front property, their lives of peregrination now forever ended. We followed the road out past a beautiful and abandoned white powder beach and finally took a road away from the coast when it was clear we could blow the whole day just bouncing our way along this path. Every time I do this kind of driving I think back to the days of my youth and how I used to think getting thrown against the roof of my 4x4 was “fun.” Amazing how things change with maturity.
The road we chose to head back on ran pretty much parallel to the coast but as always unguided bushwhacking sets me to wondering if we’re not going to drive 30 miles off into the wilderness and end up behind some locked gate. However, simply relying on the Rule of Turns (always take whatever right or left presents itself) we ended up back on a road to La Manga. What gave it away was the ever increasing amount of trash along the road – we’d found way into yet another linear dump, this one without any Cattle Egret but one graced with a fully functional fishing boat neatly tied up to a mesquite tree a mile from the ocean. It was waiting for the day when the oceans rise and the waves lap again at this little copse in the middle of the desert.
We finished the day at our favorite spot and another dinner of Carne Machaca this time enhanced by CNN International and a continuously running tape loop of some Iraqi bombing President Bush with his shoes. Fishing boats in the desert, shoe-throwing Arabs, the world is a wondrous place.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Probably the most interesting thing about the drive from Tucson to San Carlos was the police and military presence in places we had not seen it before. There have always been a few checkpoints here and there, mostly on the way back and those have often grown with time from a single Federale sitting in a lawn chair in the center of the road to small towns with tire repair stations, convenience stores and tiny, smoky food shops serving up grilled beef. These are among the few places in the western hemisphere where you can still see that famous yellow “Bardahl” sign that many of us remember from ancient family road trips. The road out is targeted because that’s the road to the promised land.
Yesterday though there were a lot of law enforcement officials out on the road heading into the country and subsequently we read that these were there hunting for guns and cash. The street price of cocaine is the highest it’s ever been, and the guns used in the ongoing border town shoot outs are almost exclusively (95%) coming from the US. And so you pass black uniformed Federales standing by their brand new Dodges watching the traffic. We only saw a couple of cars pulled over, their contents piled on the shoulder.
Arriving at the beach always ends with the same routine – unload the car, arrange the condo, go out to Rosa’s for dinner. Last night in the course of ordering our favorite plate of Carne Machaca, we had a nice little chat in Spanish with the gal behind the counter about ordering beers in Chinese. She picked it up pretty quickly, and was saying “Wo yao yi bei pi jiu” like a local with only a bit of prompting. It’s always fun to joke around with the workers in Rosas, they know us as the Machaca couple and they are happy to see us every time we show up. Last night when My Lovely Wife went back for a handful of limes, the gal asked her if she was making lemonade.
We took the traditional first day walk down to the sea side opening of the estuary and the change this time was pretty dramatic. The main point has been slowly disappearing beneath the waves starting with a big storm half-dozen years ago and sure enough this time it was rounded off. The biggest change though was the size of the inlet – formerly able to be walked at low tide it is now broad and fast running. A new point is forming in place of the old one and the land on the far side has receded to where the old wind-ravaged palapa is now close to being consumed by the waves. Such is nature, removing, depositing and sculpting without end.
The bird life here in Bahia San Francisco has changed so rapidly during out 15 years of observing that one never knows what to expect. Many years ago the little rock in the middle of the bay – Isla Blanca – was blanketed from bow to stern with cormorants and pelicans each night at sunset but that living carpet has long since disappeared. Eared Grebes at one time bobbed in mats of hundreds until one year the beach was littered with their bodies. As it turned out they were end of the migration road victims of an avian cholera breakout that devastated the wintering population much further north on California’s Salton Sea. While some species have prospered, others have simply withered away.
Loons – Common and Pacific – have always been here in numbers varying from dozens to hundreds, and this morning I was treated to evidence of the latter. It must have been a good breeding season this year in the Arctic because gladly, the bay was littered with them.
Returning from our walk, we made a quick breakfast of bolillos and juice and went down to the sea wall to enjoy the sights. I brought my scope along and was counting the Loons when out of the horizon came the boat from Gary’s Dive Shop, the preeminent place to plan your trip below the surface here in San Carlos. Loaded with tourists and blasting Enya, the pilot made a point of steering the boat straight through the rafts of birds I was in the process of enjoying. He took a weaving route across the bay in front of us and made a sharp 180 turn just down the strand. With that it became obvious – this was a dolphin chasing trip.
In the last ten years, a small pod of dolphins has become a “thing” among the people who vacation here. You can see them daily around mid-morning making their way from one end of the bay to the other. By noon they’re gone and the waiting begins again. Rarely a day goes by when someone doesn’t greet you with a “Good afternoon, have you seen the dolphins?” Well, apparently the word has spread and in a true example of human nature, where there’s a buck to be made, there is a person with the means to make it.
The boat chased them back and forth for a bit, the passengers yelling as though sitting in a stadium somewhere. As is often the case, noise carries over water so the crescendo of shouts and music was pretty disturbing from where we were sitting. Up and down they went, the animals cresting on the bow wave and eventually falling behind. After a half-hour or so the boat stopped and waited, unaware that the pod was far off to their rear, going about their daily routine.
It’s still a paradise, but it seems each year we are abused by some new manifestation of mankind. ATVs, Jet Skis, Zodiacs – all have come and gone and now a tour boat taking in a natural wonder while surely acting to ruin has become this year’s annoyance. People are so predictable and so dumb, simultaneously.
But now, with the dolphins gone and people off doing whatever they do midday, we’re sitting here watching the sun make its low transit across the sky, listening to a Great Kiskadee make its squeeze toy call as it makes its territorial rounds and realizing that sometimes it’s great to do nothing at all.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
I was a bit late getting off the ground in San Francisco and the ride home was a horrible combination of being cramped and trying to simultaneously find a way to stay awake and take a nap. I have to where I really hate that last leg on the Barbie Jet - it’s just punishment after being awake and in the air for so long.
After visiting with my friendly United Baggage Expert and watching her shake her head at the tortuous trip my luggage had made, we went home. United called later that evening to thank me for have 1K status and to tell me that the bags would be in some time on Saturday. Well, Saturday rolled in and out and they called again to tell me that they’d be in on Sunday. Interestingly, the Barbie Jet flight on that day was delayed 3 hours, dredging up all kinds of unpleasant memories.
It’s amazing how a little two-wheel time, some money spent at REI, a trip to the Apple Store and lunch at Bravo! can wash away all that dirty air, crowding and cramped hotel living in only a matter of hours. Phone calls to all my favorite voices and throwing hay for my equine pals plus having Ted try to rip the top off my decks because I’m standing on his toy. Staring into My Lovely Wife’s eyes and remembering just what I was thinking 15 and 1/2 years ago in Spencero’s kitchen. It’s always good to come home.
Sunday came and sure enough another phone call from United, this time informing me that the bags were back in New Mexico and that they would be dropped off between 6 and 10:30 PM. I think not, and we asked them to tell the bag service that later than 10 would be unacceptable. So you can imagine our surprise when the third party bag delivery guy called at 9:45 and told us he’d be swinging by on his way to Farmington between 12 and 2 AM. Yes, 12 and 2 AM. Sometimes you wonder if they even hear what they are saying. We elected to take the “sometime on Monday” slot and went to bed.
Tomorrow we head off to sunnier climes for a few days of cross-riding, kayaking and feasting on Carne Machaca. Our favorite December trip down to the beach, and I honestly cannot wait. 2008 has been one busy year, and I can’t think of spending it any other way than that. So goodbye to today’s snow flurries and hello to South of the Border, down Mexico way.
I’ll probably have a Sonoran tale or two to tell, but if not, reality sinks back in next month.
Friday, December 05, 2008
It’s an interesting thing when ten hour flights feel short. I guess it means you have crossed some sort of tolerance threshold. Maybe it’s the comfort of Business or perhaps I am truly used to it, but it seems as the old days of panic attacks in the middle of the flight are over. Now I just look at my watch and go back to doing whatever it was I was doing.
My question of the day has to do with airplane bathrooms. Why do people spend 10, 15 and 20 minutes in them? I got pipped at the line on my dash to one tonight which didn’t terribly bother me as it’s nice to stand up and have a stretch. But when the person never seems to come out, it sets you to wondering. And these are not isolated cases, it happens all the time. Honestly, it’s a 3x3x6’ space that has a sticky floor and reeks of air freshener. Why would you want to spend more than 3 minutes in there? While I was waiting for the nearest one to open I had a chat with a guy waiting for the other one. The person tying that one up never came out.
Around the middle of the flight at some unknown hour (it was dark and we were over the Pacific) I woke up from a short nap and took a look out the window. There was Orion, in precisely the same configuration I would see him if I was standing on West Ella facing the Sandias. This is one of the things I like about astronomy – if you have a decent sense of the sky and a good understanding of where you are in time and space, you can pick out the same perspective that you would have from some other place. In this case and in the case of the conjunction the other night, I can picture myself somewhere that I would much rather be and for a few fleeting seconds I can feel really good about it.
We landed and I made it through immigration quickly managing to get a guard in a good mood who said “welcome back.” It’s nice when the Border Patrol people greet you in a friendly manner, makes you really appreciate coming home. I went up to the baggage carousel expecting to be disappointed and sure enough I was – no bag for Terry. I waited and waited and it never came so I wandered over the help desk where I got no help. Seems that even though I am supposed to pick it up here and transfer it to the domestic flight, I still have to file it at my final destination. Its disappearance got me thinking, I really should challenge these airline people when I see them doing things like not putting SFO on my bag when I think they should. This is not the first time I have let something like this slide and been bitten by it. At least they were empty, and if they are lost for good I am only out a couple of suitcases and some irritation.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
I have an interesting bunch of stuff today – my two trunks, nested inside each other and completely empty. My steady tree frog green Timbuk2 messenger bag is there for things requiring immediate access and I have my brand spanking new orange-lined black Binhao rolling carry-on bag from the Da Cai Shi market which by the way is a bit like saying “PIN number” or asking for the location of an “ATM machine.”
Da Cai Shi literally translates as “Big Plant Market” which is an interesting name as it sells just about everything but.
After one more late night meeting I crawled into bed and made it about 10 pages into the last chapter of my pirate book, Empire of the Blue Water, the story of Henry Morgan and his rampaging corsair army known as the Brethren. It’s been a great book for the last 6 months as I never seem to get more than 5 pages under my belt each evening, not because it’s boring but rather due to the fact that international travel shifts my daily clock to 9PM for bedtime.
The alarm came early at 5 but I got up and got focused and was ready to roll by 6:15 when James was scheduled to arrive. For some reason I went through a series of forgetting little things like my passport (bed) and phone (bathroom sink) and scarf (desk chair) before making it out the door for the final push downstairs. Seems odd doesn’t it, considering my dedication to packing last night?
I made it down to the lobby by 6:16, four minutes ahead of James, heading straight outside as he keeps the clock in the car 20 minutes fast and is always very early. Not today, my black Honda was nowhere to be seen. I tucked myself into a nook behind one or the giant stone pillars to get out of the death-dealing Siberian gusts and waited. Looking up, I noticed a familiar powder lightly covering the Plexiglas half domes that are held up by the giant pillars – snow. Looking up at the streetlights it became clear – it was snowing. Isn’t that just my luck?
My Chinese cell phone was turned off and stowed in my bag so I retrieved it and powered it up figuring James might be calling to tell me where the heck he was. Sure enough, 30 seconds later I get the news – running late, snowing hard in Dalian. I wouldn’t call what I was looking at as “hard”, but then I grew up in Rochester, home of the 5 meter winters. This was a flurry.
Ten minutes later he rolled in and we were on our way. I asked him if the weather was generally different in Kai Fa Qu than in downtown and he confirmed it.
We motored down the expressway towards town, passing dump trucks with no lights, people riding bicycles in the wrong direction on the shoulder and the early work crews out sweeping the road with their tree branch brooms. In other words, just another winter commute in the Vancouver of Asia.
Every once in a while a gale would blow across the road creating little patches of blowing snow on the road surface. This was dry stuff being dropped by isolated clouds rolling in off the ocean and so nothing was sticking or melting. The road changed though when we made it into town - it was uniformly wet, the result of what must have been rain that changed to snow around dawn. The sweepers had created tiny 1 square foot piles of dirty snow every ten feet or so in the gutters. The streets were also much busier now and the eternal battle between those on foot and those in cars had begun.
I asked James whether he thought the planes would be delayed and he said “Domestic – no, International – almost certainly”, great, just what I need, a “tough love” chauffeur. But we made it in plenty of time, only about ½ hour from start to stop, ironically faster than the normal trip from the Shangri La which sits right there in the city.
International boarding at the Dalian airport is much more civilized than domestic sporting none of the scrums or queues, just orderly little lines. My station was open and I was about 4th in line and the process presented no problems aside from the fact that I noticed that the agent had not tagged my bag through to SFO. She didn’t have much English and I don’t have enough subtlety in my Chinese to deal with a problem of that particular nuance, so I figured I would deal with it from the far side of the Yellow Sea. I had a nice rubdown by the security agent and after a slightly confusing interlude where they boarded some other plane through my gate, I was through the ticket check and heading down the ramp past the hand lettered sign that said “Seoul.” I wasn’t even bothered in the slightest by the moron in front of me who didn’t understand that the perforated part of his boarding pass was intended to stay attached until removed by a designated airpline representative. It wasn’t even annoying to stand there while he rifled the fistfuls of grimy little pieces of paper he had pulled out of his jacket and pants pockets.
The best thing about this China Southern flight to Korea is that it’s short. The stewardess apologized in English that she did not have an immigration form for me, not a problem because I had no intention of leaving the safety of the international transfer terminal. I had a Coke, passed on the highly aromatic hot sandwich, thinking of my pal Matt and his recent trip to the hospital in Beijing and settled in for the hop, reading a couple of good articles about Obama in a month old New Yorker.
We landed a bit early and I followed the lead of the Chinese passengers in staking my spot in the center aisle as we drove towards the gate.
Now it was time to deal with security. I think I’ve written about it before, but if you are making an international transfer here in Incheon, the process is a bit odd. You’re supposed to have a boarding pass from your next flight to pass through from the international arrival corridor to the international departure gates. Problem is you don’t get boarding pass until you’re on the other side of security so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma. And it doesn’t help that the khaki clad airport personnel don’t speak a whole lot of English other than that necessary to point and say – “Ig.”
In the past I have used my bag check tag that says “SFO” or “DLC” on it in order to prove my final destination. Recall though that today I have no such tag as my pal back there in Dalian had given me the wrong one. I decided on the spot that the ultimate bluff was called for so I walked right up to the lead guard, today with a jaunty white satin sash bedecking his tan suit and handed him my itinerary and said “San Francisco”, pointing at the “If you require emergency assistance call 1-800-CAR-ENOT” section of the page. He looked at it sternly and waved me into the metal detector.
And after standing in line at the gate where the ever so helpful (read I have 1K status on this airline) gate agent inquired about my luggage, picked up her walk-talkie and called my personal luggage concierge to go find my bag and repair that which had been done amiss.
Now I sit in the lounge which is incredibly packed with hordes of Germans. I can’t say for sure but I am begin to suspect that this constant association with my Teutonic Brothers is not simply another test from Lord Buddha this time coming hot on the heels of the barking dogs and the long check-out at Mykal because this place is pretty loud with conversation, clanking of steins and bier haus anthems - all things I look forward to on my layovers. At least smoking is not allowed.
Just now though, one of the Asiana Airlines lounge girls is walking up and down the airless intoning in the most mellifluous sing-song voice, “Munich, time to board.” Maybe there is hope for me after all.
So I sat and watched it this evening and it was pretty well done. It tells the story of how the monks live their daily lives and how the monastery had been purged by the Master years ago. The local farmers attempted to take it back by beating up the monks and driving truckloads of banned statues back into the temple. But the good side prevailed and now we are back at a period of peace.
The most interesting part was the section on their annual pilgrimage which takes place around a lunar event each August 15th. The go off and wander the region talking to villagers and begging for food. The latter part was interesting to watch, for the number of people in what appear to be prosperous homes telling the monks to get off their property.
James suggested that perhaps I would consider doing an English narration for one of their DVDs, something that I will certainly ponder.
The last couple of days have been pretty plain, lots of early and late meetings, a couple of good Chinese lessons with Xie Li (whose western name is....guess what.....Shelly) including an entire chapter that I was able to run right over the top of. She gave me two workbooks to practice my characters in, one for raw work and one to be used for perfection only. I have to say I am enjoying drawing them. Being forced to do the strokes in the proper direction and order imparts a real sense of disciplined peace - it's an odd sensation.
So far I have mastered 一二三四五六七八九十我他你肉入口出山门人上下点鸡鸭牛 not bad I suppose for just a bit of time and patience. And, there are snippets here and there that I know recognize but am not yet able to write. Xie Li's assignment for me these next few weeks - practice, practice, practice.
Tomorrow I return home for the holidays and an opportunity to burn up the vacation I never had time to use this year. It looks like I am booked in business unlike the trip over. I hate to get my hopes up though. You start thinking about those tableclothes and it's a big let down when they don't appear. Ialways look forward to heading back after business trips, but this time, it's doubly special.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Having nothing to do but work allows you to put the daily activities in slo-mo and to observe the differences in life here in finer detail. For example, how pedestrians are treated by cars.
It’s very simple, if a couple of pedestrians want to cross the sidewalk that you’re driving down, you cut them off. If a group of people on foot wants to cross a major on the green crossing sign, you put your shuttle bus into a tight u-turn and head straight into the crowd. If you are pulling out of a driveway and two people are halfway across it, you move to their outside and get out before they slow you down. If a dad is trying to get across the road with his six year old son in a parka, speed up a bit and try to get inside of the kid before he gets to the curb. The rules seem easy enough to follow – pedestrians have no rights, they do not belong in any place that a car can go which means they should pretty much limit their movements to stairways and broken escalators both of which are available in adequate quantities.
And then there are the buses. We have two types here, the ones that are run by the city along predetermined routes and the ones that park on the sidewalks during rush hour and run to a specific destination. Hawkers stand by the doorway yelling what must be the name of the places they are heading to and hope that people will select their bus instead of some other. From what I hear, entrepreneurs buy routes from the government and then run them with profit in mind and the competition is fierce. Fights over clientele often break out between drivers. These buses also follow no rules as mentioned above; a group of people in the crosswalk is a reason to make that u-turn even if they have no intention of heading that way.
There is good news for carbon paper lovers here in China, it is still used extensively. I went to the Mykal department store tonight to pick up a couple of items. The instant I said I wanted this particular thing, the girl whipped out her little receipt book, jammed a tiny little sheet of carbon paper between two slips and wrote the item up. Well, I wanted two, so she repeated the action with a second little slip. And I wanted two of something else, as well, so once more, but this time she managed to put both on the same slip, perhaps conserving that precious carbon duplication resource. It was funny; she was so fast as to say “I’ve written it up, now you have to buy it.”
I marched off to the cashier with my three slips for four items and got in a short line that was queued up behind a woman doing an exchange which was taking forever. More people came and much to my amazement lined up behind me. It was taking so long that I had time to realize that Buddha might be testing me again, having passed the Koan of the Barking Dogs with relative composure. When it was my turn, she took my little slips separating the originals from the copies and stacking them into two little fan-piles of three each. She stamped a tiny little box on each one with a tiny little stamp, taking a moment to re-ink the stamp from a red stamp pad. She rang them up and then briskly stamped all six with a big, round stamp before taking the copies and impaling them on a spike. Yes, it’s 2008, almost 2009 and the fanciest department store (think Macys) in Kai Fa Qu uses one of those little receipt spikes that are so ancient that I can’t even remember the name of them. I do remember Rod Steiger jamming his hand down on one at the end of The Pawnbroker, however. She handed me the three originals along with a receipt from the cash register and off I went back to get my items from the girls at the counter. They took the originals, verified the stamps and analyzed the cash register slip to make doubly sure I had paid before helping me shove the goods into my messenger bag and sending me out the door.
Tonight I thought would be a good one for a trip to the gym. It was too early to avoid the Spin Class, assuming there actually was one and yet too late for me to get there in time for the start if there was any chance of one occurring. So I killed a little time remaking playlists on my iPod before heading down the street to the fitness center.
Climbing the stairs, I realized almost instantly that something was amiss – the disco was deafening. Spin Class was on, in full bore complete with music, yelling and flashing lights. I took a look in the door to see if there was an empty bike and not seeing one decided to just wait them out. It was 5:55, ten minutes after the scheduled end of the class. Okay, I’m starting to get it – we make believe that there are classes on days that there are not, only admitting that they didn’t happen when confronted with times and dates. On the days that the class actually happens, we neither start it nor end it at the advertised time. And when we do end it, we end it a couple of times before restarting it for just one more song.
I planted myself in a chair and decided to wait them out – the time would not be poorly spent as I could easily sweat off a pound sitting there in the sweltering heat.
The group yell finally ended and I went in and set up a bike and watched my friend the cleaning lady mop the floor; this time she did not make me stop pedaling. Have you noticed a trend here – I seem to be making the best of friends with service workers across China. For some reason I understand their lot and they know it.
The fitness world presents itself in an amazing tableau when viewed from the seat of a spin bike. You see people using elliptical machines with less energy than it would take them to walk to the refrigerator, making you wonder why they bothered to come to the gym at all. You see western girls walk around the place with so much self confidence that they seem to own the joint and just when you are convinced they do, they get on the abdominal machine, set it to two pounds and commence to do crunches that are clearly not working anything. You want to tell them that the tag is sticking out of the waistband of their tights, brightly displaying itself against the sallow skin at the base of their back but you just keep on spinning. You see fat little guys on the recumbent bike with the handlebars pulled up to their noses and you see that same woman who came in the spin studio with her personal trainer last week to do resistance free push-ups while he stands behind her, out of sight sending text messages on his cell phone. Yes, it’s a world of wonder, populated by more people wandering around exercising the towel around their neck than working their muscles.
One thousand calories and 90 minutes later I was out on the street walking home in a 100 MPH wind straight off Lake Baikal that wasn’t blowing when I went in. But the fear that I was now close to freezing to death on my three block wall was mitigated by the glorious conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. We had been blessed with a clear night, and there it was, hovering over the Bank of China making me realize that if I was seeing that same thing from West Ella Drive, I’d be doing it with my lovely wife and my faithful dog Tedward, and that all would be well with my world.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
In my last blog I didn’t give the whole tale from Saturday, leaving off yesterday’s story with the drive back. But there was more, and those events were partially the reason for my general lack of energy and motivation on this particular morning.
After reaching Kai Fa Qu, it was decided that we would all go on to Dalian to have Sichuan Hot Pot. I thought I understood the whole hot pot idea, but it turns out I was wrong. This hot pot is a major communal meal involving all the elements of intrigue and mystery – fire, boiling hot oil and suspect food stuffs.
Before heading in though, my companions allowed me to stop off at the hotel to drop off my things and to splash some water on my face. They went on to the most popular expat bar in 5 Colour City, Café Vienna. James dropped them off while I was still in the car. The scene out front was a bit bizarre – a table was set up, a fire was burning in an oil barrel and people wearing Santa hats were standing around drinking something that appeared to be warm. A Sino-American caroling party? Not so sure.
I returned 15 or 20 minutes later and the elf party outside was still in full swing. Inside a few westerners sat at the bar drinking interleaved between Tupperware tubs of cookies. It seems that we had a birthday party going on for some Germans. I ordered a beer and grabbed one of the cookies – a chocolate macaroon by looks which belied the fact that it had the consistency of a shard of masonry. I tried to get my closest to the front molar into the front, but worried about the potential damage to my bridgework and the likelihood of getting it repaired in a pinch. I finally managed to grind off little bits of it with my canines and refused a second helping.
One of the bar girls admired my Keffiyeh telling me that the style was very popular this year and that I had impeccable taste. I asked her if the check was too big and she said no, it was just the proper size. While it’s good to be on the cutting edge of the local trends, I think I will draw the line at the stiletto heeled boots and the hip-hugger jeans with the big sanded spots on the back of the thighs.
We sat there through a beer watching the Germans do German things, one woman whose hair might at one time have actually known the delicate caress of a comb kept shooting me “ugly American” glances across the top of her beer stein. I returned the favor, semi-scoffing at her beau who had shoulder length stringy white hair and an undersized untucked dress shirt buttoned halfway down the front. Growing weary of this scene, we went out past Santa’s helpers and got into the car.
The restaurant was just up the street from my regular hotel, on the far side of the square that has the giant boat in the middle of it. From the outside it looked just like most of the fancier Chinese restaurants – lots of glass, marble and neon. Two girls in floor length gowns held the doors for us; James went off to have dinner with his family. It was my first time here but not so for Aaron who attempted to tell the non-English hostesses that we had a reservation, a concept by the way which is pretty much completely alien in this part of China. They started blankly until I tried to tell them we were waiting for our friends. That bit of information also failed to paint their faces with the warm glow of understanding, so I just said “liu” and gave them the hand signal for “6” which gained us entry to the elevator. The second girl reported our impending arrival via her walkie-talkie.
We were seated at a big table with a gas burner down in a center well. Aaron’s warning that little English was spoken here continued to be proven, starting with the beer order, my second attempt at telling them we were waiting for friends and a change to the beer order which resulted in us waiting for our beers in addition to our friends. The other three finally showed up and we got down to the business of ordering food.
The way the place works is simple – you order some special sauces (we chose garlic, wasabi, chile powder and sesame), some raw food (mushrooms, spinach, bamboo, lamb, beef and shrimp balls) and then you cook it all up in a two-sided pot that sits on the burner down in the well. One side of the pot held red oil sporting a flotilla of habaneros, the other what appeared to be dishwater with two spears of asparagus floating on the top. It comes to a boil, you dump all the raw goods in and you eat it as it finishes cooking.
The food was excellent, particularly the lamb and the surprisingly the shrimp balls which went in looking like a lump of gray drywall compound but came out a tasty golden yellow. The bamboo was interesting in that it looked like the back end of a long insect, perhaps a Walking Stick. The spears of asparagus were set aside in the perhaps mistaken belief that they had been recycled from another table. The first round done, we went back for more lamb and mushrooms and in the end everyone was pretty full and only mildly injured by the tendency of the hot oil to splatter all over the place.
It was a pretty nice dinner, all in all.
That late evening activity and a long call home led me to be operating on less than 50% of my normal Sunday morning energy level as I climbed into the car for another day’s drive. You now, the Sundays where I get up and ride my bike for 2 hours in the crisp high desert air, just thanking all the Wood and River Spirits for being alive. Yea, that one.
James took us down through Jinzhou to grab entry to the Shenda (Shenyang to Dalian) Expressway and another route north, this time on the other side of the peninsula. The road out of town here was different – you climbed and climbed, just like that stretch of I70 that takes you west out of Denver. No wind today, the valleys were completely choked with the smoke from heating fires. Off through the haze I could see a new to me temple on the edge of Big Black Mountain. We continued up, passing a service area just like the ones back on the New York State Thruway. Some cultural imperatives are transportable, at least from afar. We did not stop so I can’t say how close the implementation mirrored ours from close up.
We rode past countless fields and fields of those half-circle greenhouses, just like yesterday. Some were wearing their grass mat covers; others open to the morning sun. We crested the first range of hills and went down to a causeway that crossed a tidal area divided up into large rectangles, perhaps some kind of aquaculture facility. At the midpoint of the bridge a giant mermaid holding a sphere sat atop a stone pedestal in the median. On the far side a sign on the side of a company on shore read “marine seeds division” confirming the use of those ponds. I wonder what exactly those seeds are for.
We climbed again and pulled over to do the ritual removal of the plates and went on for another hour or so until we replaced them just before exiting at Haicheng.
After paying the toll and heading into town James began taking stock of the gasoline supply. He only likes China Petrol, pronouncing the others of poor quality. Surveying the first two we passed, he told me they were fakes – exact copies of China Petrol stations but not the real thing. When I scanned the signs I saw the difference – the “guo” character, for “country” was incorrect – it lacked a stroke. Instead of 国, the little right side down stroke was missing and the bottom horizontal line was scrunched up against the middle one. Not only was I amazed that I could figure that out, I was more shocked at the brazen nature of this the same colors, designs and branding, the gas station was a virtual clone of the real thing. Most people therefore drive down the road, take in the big picture overlooking the subtle difference in one character amid the 10 or 12 on the sign and end up paying too much for cheap gas. It would be the same as pulling into Exson in Port Arthur and thinking you’re getting Tony the Tiger when you’re really filling up with Andy the Armadillo. James asked the pump jockeyette how many fakes there were in town and she said three. We’d seen two of them on the way to the real thing.
We took the wrong way out of a t-intersection and got turned around by a helpful woman who was trying to board a bus. Heading down the road, we took our next bearings by pulling alongside two guys on a motorcycle and asking them for directions as they rode down the shoulder and we held up the driving lane. We were heading in the right direction and I suspected as much as I could see what appeared to be a tall statue of Guanyin off in the distance, sharing a hill with what looked like a gravel mining operation. I pointed this out to James, but he didn’t seem interested. Chinese drivers do not reconnoiter the way I do, they prefer to the constant set of selective approximations they get from asking pedestrians. Their way works, but more often than not it does not result in the most direct route.
Exiting to the right off this little highway, our next bearing set was with two policemen about ¾ of a mile down the street. They were standing in an intersection keeping the peace and both broke into a big smile when they saw that I was a foreigner. Probably the best thing for me on these journeys to the hinterlands is the look on the faces of people when I roll down the window to allow James to interrogate them. Sometimes shock, sometimes amusement, but always a big, friendly smile.
Driving around the back of this little hill we passed the gravel operation and turned left, with the statue I had seen looming now off to our left. She was quite beautiful, becoming more so as we came closer. James observed that this temple had its own police station, placed there to stop people from arriving and insisting on being monks.
This temple and its associated order are unique within Buddhism in China. The temples accept no monetary donation, the monks eat only once per day and they often go out on foot into the countryside of China, doing good deeds and accepting only meals from the villages they visit. The Dharma Realm Buddhist association was founded by Venerable Master Hua in the 1970s and has its headquarters, The Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas, is located on 500 acres near Mendocino, California. This temple is known as Da Bai Si – Great Sadness Temple – reflecting the choice of these monks to live in abject poverty. James was very excited about this visit.
Having parked the car we went up the stairs past a one-legged beggar enjoying some soup in front of the door. We went in and James wandered off to ask some questions and reappeared, beckoning me to join him. I was greeted by a young man sitting on a golden pillow and studying a text in a chilly reading room. We passed through into another room which had a set of stairs that led up to a second level. James talked a bit with a couple of people there and after a few moments, a monk wearing headphones came out of a room off to the side and joined in the discussion. It turned out that this was a hostel and we were invited to stay. We politely declined the offer and asked if we might see the Master. The monk replied that this was merely an annex to the real temple which was located up the road into the mountain behind the city. As is happened an elderly woman sitting there in the waiting room needed a ride into town – she would show us the way.
Back in the car and on the road, we headed off with James and our passenger conversing quietly about me and her and our individual stories. We finally dropped her in a busy little town formed by the intersection of three roads. Ours led out to the countryside.
This drive pretty much took me to a new level in off the grid adventure. My trip to Chongming Island back in 2006 was one thing, this was wholly another. The road was a single lane affair that paralleled a river bottom through village after village. I’m going to guess and say we went perhaps 20 miles out into the countryside, occasionally crossing a tiny bridge from one side to the other and then back a ways down the road. Mule carts caused us to move off the pavement every few miles along with the occasional person on a motor scooter taxi, a regular bike with a small sheet metal house attached to the back with room for a single passenger. Every once in a while the road would straighten out and pass down a long line of evenly spaced trees, backlit and naked in the winter light.
What caught my eye along this stretch was the sheer volume of cordwood and corn shucks piled along the road. This giant mass of plant matter provides the basis for winter subsistence in these villages – fuel for the houses, bedding and food for the animals, insulation for the dark side of the house. The quantity was staggering; the straight sections of the road here were lined with giant stacks of it, narrowing the lane down further. Every home had a big pile, often stacked in the shape of a pitch-roofed cottage. Cows and donkeys tethered to the side of the road made an afternoon snack of it.
The road began to rise and as we climbed up above the trees, a woman came out of a convenience store (of all things) and yelled at us to stop and buy something. In addition to large jugs of cooking oil, boxes of incense were stacked along the inside back of the building. Three little boys on bicycles stopped to gape at me as I passed by.
We were now at the base of an earthen dam and off to our left were a line of construction trailers. We had found the temple and it was undergoing some serious expansion. James had a word with a very friendly man at the gate who told us to go on up to the buildings on the side of the hill. The Master was up there overseeing the construction.
Behind the dam was a half-filled reservoir, the reflecting pool for the entry to the site. A long building constructed of charcoal colored bricks faced down the hillside. We wandered a bit and then saw the Master coming our way, dressed in gray robes composed of many patches – a symbol of the vow of poverty that this order takes. He was of medium height and indeterminate age and gave off that impression of serenity and friendliness you often get from these fellows. He and his assistant were coming over our way to check in the progress of some sort of well that was being dug in front to this building.
James chatted with him for a moment or two and told me we were free to wander around, and that he would see us later. We climbed an unfinished set of concrete stairs and passed through the building entering a second square at the back of which there were three smaller structures. James stopped to pray and I was taking a photograph when a monk loading a minivan yelled at me to stop. This is often a tricky situation, I never use a camera in the center of the temples, but I sometimes will take a shot or two of the buildings. You never know when it is not allowed. I waved and put my camera away. James came over and told me they didn’t want me taking any shots, something that had been made amply obvious, so I told him to go over and to apologize on my behalf.
The three buildings here held all manner of fantastic Buddhas and I went from place to place taking in the sights. James went off an entered a small library where he got into a conversation with a female monk about the available literature. A second monk appeared and handed me a DVD which James explained held an English version of the story of this place. The monk asked us to follow him and we entered one of the closed areas through a big cotton mat hung over the doorway. He took us through a door into a second room where a monk also dressed in gray sat cross-legged on a chair behind a desk. The room was pretty big and well lit by windows along one side. Cabinets with books filled the other and a long Sutra was framed on the wall behind the monk. He had a business-style phone on his desk and a pedestal sink in front of it. Two bottles of Liquid Plumber sat on the floor below it. We greeted each other and he and James got into a discussion about something, me perhaps, that went on for a bit. About this time I began to realize that I was so far in over my head that it seemed I had really overstepped my bounds in agreeing to do this. I was simultaneously fascinated and awkward, an odd combination to be sure. James had apparently negotiated an audience with the Master, something which I was now having serious second thoughts about. James and the monk discussed some literature that James had collected – the second monk leaving and returning every few minutes with something else, adding to James’ pile. We were invited to sit in a row of chairs off to the side of the room to wait. Each chair had a pink seat cushion with a rose on it. I sat there listening to the clock tick and looking at the paint peeling in great sheets from the ceiling. Outside and up the hill, a group of dogs were engaged in some sort of battle, barking incessantly. Perhaps this was some sort of challenge to me in my journey towards spiritual enlightenment? Figures, Buddha would choose barking dogs as my challenge. The phone would ring every few minutes and the monk would answer it, talking softly with whoever was calling.
Ten or fifteen minutes went by – who really knows in places like this and for some reason James got up and told me to follow him out of there. We went back out into the courtyard and he returned to the library. The dogs kept barking joined now by some clacking Magpies.
Off to my left, a long line of monks silently descended a ramp from what must have been the site dormitory. At first I didn’t notice them as they blended into the hill behind them, but I was finally able to make them out – some wearing cowls, all dressed in the same gray robes patched with blue fabric. James was done now in the library and so we headed out between the buildings, walking parallel to the procession, reaching the main square at the same moment. The crossed on the diagonal and went on to the dining hall.
James stopped to light some incense and found that the burner was not lit; he used his cigarette lighter and placed them in the sand to burn down.
I figured we were done for the day and so we headed down the stairs, down the hill and out across the lot. As I veered off in the direction of the car, James continued on along the line of trailers. He asked me if I wanted to come in, and I misunderstood what he was asking. I told him to go on ahead, figuring he was going inside to talk to the guard again, perhaps asking directions. Two other people, backlit and so obscured were walking beside him. He looked over and said “Come on, the Master wants you to come in.”
And so I went.
We were seated in one of the travel trailers with the Master sitting at the head of the room on a wooden chair, his feet up on a wooden box. To his right stood his assistant, dressed like all the others with the same very short buzz cut except he had nine dime-sized spots shaved down the scalp, forming a perfect 3 by 3 array on his head. James sat to my right, closest to the Master. He held a small electronic tape recorded in his right hand, capturing everything that the Master said. Apparently, this Master is held in such high esteem that they don’t want to miss a chance of something very unworldly coming out in these conversations.
Now I thought this was going to be James’ thing but it turned out to be mine, further compounding the sense that I had no right to be sitting where I was sitting. The Master started speaking and James listened intently. After what seemed like 5 minutes he stopped and James thought for a moment and began translate for me.
The gist of it was – the order and the Master have enjoyed a close personal relationship with former president George Herbert Walker Bush.
I thought about that for a while and countered that I believed our new president would be friends to all of the world’s people. James translated and I heard “Obama” at least two or three times. The Master nodded and thought for a moment and James translated his message.
“Buddha is a choice; it is how you elect to live your life.”
Hmm, we were getting into pretty deep waters here, much so for an aging hipster in Ecco shoes, a Mountain Hardware jacket and one who had just been tested by the Barking Dogs.
I countered with “This is a journey for me and I am just at the beginning.”
I could tell from the look on his most serene face that I was coming up short on the long list of the enlightened. He told me that seeking Buddha is not the same as westerners going to church, that again it was more of a choice of how to live.
I replied that I understood the difference between how westerners worship and how he spends his day. He nodded and then he and James went on for quite a while. I heard a couple of instances of “Intel” and “Kai Fa Qu” and “Computer” and I imagine he was giving the Master the back-story. James finally suggested to the Master that I might like to have his picture as a memory of this day. The Master replied kindly but I picked out “Bu hui” which meant there was no way. His reasoning was clear – he was here for purposes other than having his picture taken.
And that was then end of it, he rose, we rose, we said goodbye and went on our way, depositing the rice and the flour at the front trailer on the way out.
I had a lot of time on the way back down the bumpy road through the villages to ponder what I had just experienced. On the one hand, it has been very pleasant for me to spend time in temples over the past couple of years, enjoying the sights and sounds and being just that tad better than the other westerners present who had piled off the bus, paid their 20 kuai and viewed the whole experience as nothing more than a living history museum. I was better than that and I knew it, seeing things on a wholly different level. And today I had been honored by the next step – time with a person totally dedicated to spending his life in search of his vision of truth. I imagine there are practicing Buddhists in the US who would throw me under a mule cart hauling corn sheaves to take my place in that little aluminum trailer. And they would almost certainly view my presence there as nothing but a silly personal pretense. At the brass tacks level, I’m really just a hair more than an outsider on a weekend junket and that was probably the second most powerful emotion of the day right after a strong sense of gratitude at having been treated so honorably by this esteemed man.