Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Conversation at Immigration, Atlanta

Ian and I approach the counter together. He has filled out our family customs form on the plane from Lima.

Agent: "Are you family?"
Us: "Yes." We nod, and hand over our passports.
Me: "Hand him the form," murmured, at Ian.
Ian: "It's for customs." Murmured as well, slightly sarcastically.
Agent: "No, she's right, I want to see that too."
Agent: "How long have you been gone?"
Ian: "Seattle."
Me: "Three weeks."
Agent, chuckling, to Ian: "You'd better let her take over from here!"
We laugh, and Ian steps back so I can precede him, in proper order, into America


one-fingered on my phone

Monday, December 03, 2012

Machu Picchu and the Sanctuary Lodge, Part II

Our circumstances changed significantly after writing Part I of this saga, and I am no longer raw with outrage and seething fury, but I do believe that the rest of the “sanctuary” story needs to be told.

We had been looking forward to spending a night in blissful luxury right at the gates of Machu Picchu, one of the best known, most exquisite, and, seemingly, most-visited archeological sites in the world. One thing we had all been led to believe about staying at this hotel was that we’d have access to the Machu Picchu citadel before the massing crowds arrived in the morning, and after they left at night. Some hikers from France who arrived as we were leaving were under the same false impression, so that wasn’t just our error. The Sanctuary Lodge is heart-stoppingly expensive—over $1,000 per room, per night—and we had three rooms booked. Granted, this one-grand covers not just the room, but everything: food, drinks (alcoholic as well as non, um, except for top shelf), the hot tub; but not the spa, not tickets to the park, and not even, as it turned out, a transfer from the train station in Aguas Calientes to the hotel itself.

We had arisen early in Cuzco, before 5:00am,  to catch our train. Too early for breakfast or even coffee at our hotel, but not to worry because the tickets I had booked, on the Perurail Vistadome Hiram Bingham SuperExpress or whatever included vouchers for, upon arrival, the buffet at the Sanctuary Lodge. I knew that we’d have dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day, included in our rate, but we’re eaters, always planning two meals ahead, and I knew we’d need to tank up before hiking out to sightsee. We figured that the three-hour train trip, arriving in Aguas Calientes at around 9:30am, meant that we’d be hungry but alive at 10:00am when we expected to arrive at the buffet.

After many emails and a couple phone calls to the concierge at the Sanctuary Lodge as well as agents at parent company Orient Express, and many worried conversations (me) with Ian (calmly reassuring) that we’d have trouble getting tickets to get into Machu Picchu—the Peruvian government has been limiting passes to 1200 per day, and those passes have to be purchased in Aguas Calientes—I made a final call, just before we left Seattle, and requested someone to meet us at the train, help us acquire tix, and give us a lift to the hotel. I was told to not worry, someone would be there. Ian echoed this, calmly asserting that such a hotel, at such a cost, would be sure to smooth the way for its well-heeled guests.

Here is what happened.

A “snack” had been served on the train. It was not a satisfying meal, and we were five ravenous and fragile English-speakers, exhausted from a week at high elevations, and the caregiving (and careneeding) of one of our number, who had been in a clinic for several hours the evening/night before (more on that in a later post).
We got off the train in quaint Aguas Calientes and searched through the crowds, finally locating someone with a Sanctuary Lodge sign. That person had a clipboard with about 20 names on it (including ours, but not exclusively ours). Another person with a SL sign appeared and asked me in Spanish to hand over my overnight bag. I said there were five of us, cinco. Both persons looked confused, looked around, saw the people I was waving at, looked back at me.

“We need to get tickets to Machu Picchu,” I said. “Five for today, and five for tomorrow. Cinco hoje, cinco mañana,” I said, mixing Portuguese in with my attempts at Spanish. One person and a lot of tall Westerners disappeared. My group straggled in around me, our bags were ripped away and put on a cart, and the cart disappeared down a hill. The person who was left, who did not understand English at all, said “Where are your bus tickets?”

I looked at him blankly.

“Where are your bus tickets?” he asked again.

“I don’t understand,” I replied. “Why do we need bus tickets? We need to get tickets to the park. For today and tomorrow. The concierge said someone would meet us at the train, help us get tickets, and take us to the lodge.”

Finally, after more blank stares, he turned and motioned us to follow him. The hot sun glared down on our tired, hungry forms. I shrugged my shoulders at my group and followed the man.

We arrived at the office selling tickets to Machu Picchu. We needed to pay cash, in Peruvian soles. 156 each person, each day. 624 soles for Ian and me. 624 soles for Mom and Marsh. 312 soles for A. We did not have 1560 soles. The most I could ever get out of an ATM at one time was 450. We could not pay with a VISA card. “Where is an ATM,” I asked the guard at the door of the ticket office, who hadn’t let us in without first seeing our passports. He pointed vaguely across a square somewhere.

We lurched outside, found our “helper” from the Sanctuary Lodge and said “ATM.” He led us down a different way from that just indicated, turned up a different street, and showed us to an ATM. I wrote above that the most I ever got from an ATM was 450 soles—about $175. That was not from this particular ATM. This particular ATM gave me nothing. Gave all of us nothing.

We all still had a few hundred dollars in crisp new $20s, though, so we were led a few doors down to a money exchange. The exchange agent proceeded to reject, as broken, more than 60% of the money we handed him. We eventually, amongst the five of us, managed to pull together the 1560 soles needed to visit the park. Back at the ticket office, we were called up one at a time, our passports were photocopied and our tickets were applied to us individually, our money—which we had just received from a Peruvian exchange—was inspected for legitimacy—and we were let out.

“Now, bus tickets,” said the “guide” from the Sanctuary Lodge. He led us back outside, back down to near where the broken ATM was, and pointed us at another window.

The bus company agent asked “return?”

“Yes,” I said, “return.” OF COURSE return. We were not staying forever at Machu Picchu.

 “How many,” she said.

“Five,” I replied. “Cinco.”

“Eighty dollars,” she said. “U.S.”

“Can we pay with VISA?”

“No. Cash. Dollars.”

Shocked into silence, we hauled out our remaining, oft-rejected greenbacks and handed her the wad.

“Broken,” she said, paging through rapidly . “Broken . . . broken  . . . broken . . . broken . . . okay.” She gave us our rejected money. “You owe 20 more.”

“Can we pay it in soles?” I asked through gritted teeth, my jaw beginning to burn, a red haze of starvation and rage clouding my vision.

“Yes. 57 soles.” We turned out our pockets, Ian handed over his “souvenir” bills, and we received our tickets. The agent from the Sanctuary Lodge led us down the street to a teeming bus stop, and told us to get in line and wait. One thousand per room per night, and we don’t even get a guaranteed spot on a bus. It was almost 11:00am. If you’ve ever met Ian or my mother, you know that they were about ready to gnaw off each other’s hands to stay alive.

The first bus left and another pulled smoothly into place and we climbed on and sat, Mom in an aisle seat across from Ian, me next to the window on the other side of him. My mother and I began an enraged, hissed conversation. “THOUSANDS of dollars!” we said, across Ian’s chest. “OUTRAGED!” “INFURIATED!” “FLABBERGASTED!” “Those motherf***ing bleepity bleep bleep GOUGERS!!!!”

“PLEASE!” begged Ian, who was just as upset as we were, but preferred to sit quietly and stoicly and harbor his last vestiges of strength. None of us had any idea when we would be fed, and Marsh had misplaced his buffet ticket anyway. “Please don’t do this right now.”

We shut up. I gazed blindly out the window as the bus turned off the paved road from Aguas Calientes and began switching back and forth up the narrow, steep dirt track to the park entrance. All around us loomed majestic,breathtaking, steep and gorgeous, lush green mountains. Cloud shadows played over the heights, throwing the singular landscape into stunning relief. It barely registered. Occasional tracks crossed the road, with stairs coming down from above and disappearing over the edge. I noted, bitterly, that return tickets for the bus were not, in fact, essential.

Time passed.

We arrived at the front stairs of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge and exited the bus.

Several hotel employees came out to meet us and usher us inside. I answered them with curt, one word replies, and said we were interested in checking in. It was just after 11:00am. “Check in is at 1:00pm!,” they said.

I glowered.

They ushered us into the bar, into a banquette in a corner, and hurried away. We muttered and grumbled and surmised and supposed and complained and groused and worried. We talked about what we would write in our reviews. Our stomachs yawned with hunger. A young man approached. We tensed.

“Hello, and welcome to the Sanctuary Lodge!,” he said. I sensed that our displeasure had not gone unnoted by the swarm of initial receivers, but they had no idea the depths of it. “Is there anything . . .”

I stood up. Straight up. I am forty years old now, I thought to myself. I speak my truth with integrity.

“I am angry,” I said, barely able to control the emotion in my voice.

“Oh, uh, yes, please, go on,” said the flustered young man.

“We are paying thousands of dollars to stay in this hotel tonight,” I said, my voice shaking, “and we have had a terrible time getting here. I have emailed and called the concierge many times over the last several months, and have had no response until two weeks ago, when I finally reached someone. I asked for an agent to meet us at the train, help us get tickets to the park, and bring us to the hotel.”

The young man, Jose, said, “but didn’t someone meet you?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of the train. We are traveling with three elders,” I pointed out. “This is a five star hotel. We spent over an hour, hungry, lost, being sent from office to office to change money—most of which was rejected—and buy bus tickets. No one told us we’d have to buy bus tickets.”

“I am sorry about the money changing,” said Jose, looking legitimately sorry. “It is the banks. Even we have troubles.”

“Regardless,” I said, “we have arrived in this amazingly beautiful part of the world and I have not been able to see any of it because of how angry I am right now.” I stopped.

Jose fumbled around for an offer—drinks? Anything else?, because our rooms truly weren’t ready yet, and Ian spoke up.

“We haven’t eaten yet today,” he said shakily. “Where is the buffet?”

“One of us doesn’t have his ticket with him anymore,” I added bluntly. “I assume that won’t matter.”

We were hurried in to the buffet. We found food and a glass or two of wine. We began to breathe again.

At 12:45pm, sated, calmed, we left the dining room and went to the front desk.

“I know it’s still early, but we would like to check in to our rooms,” I said to the clerk. He began to tell me 1:00pm, but Jose hurried out of the back.

“Your rooms are ready,” he said. “I took the liberty of upgrading you from Superior Rooms to Mountain View rooms. Please follow me.”

We followed him, and indeed the rooms had beautiful views. As I said in Part I, the only view of the citadel from the property was from the hot tub, not from our rooms, but we were able to enjoy sweeping views of  green, cloud-crowned peaks. We split into two groups for our afternoon in the park, and I have to say, perhaps because I was drained from the arrival experience, but I don’t think so—that seeing Machu Picchu in the flesh was a little like finally seeing that blockbuster movie everyone you know has been raving about. Nice, but a bit of a let-down.

Ian and me, it’s not our style to travel to blockbusters. It’s our style to travel to hidden gems. Yeah, it’s interesting to wonder about the Inca masons and just how they did their work, but in Cabo Verde, real live humans are still living in precipice-built stone villages and growing their livelihoods on steep, narrow terraces.

As hotel guests we were not allowed into the park any earlier or any later than anyone else, and hordes of people were already waiting at 6:30am when the gates opened. The one park-based benefit was that, on day two the weather was mostly rotten, rainy and foggy, and from our room’s vantage we were able to gauge the best time for our second visit. None of us was interested in staying much into the afternoon, though, so we got into line for the bus trip down the hill soon after lunch, and spent some time in Aguas Calientes shopping and looking at the town before boarding our train back to Cuzco. As I said to the group, I had been so enraged the first time through I hadn’t been able to see it, and it turned out to be a charming little hamlet with a fine market of handicrafts.

Our train journey back to Cuzco was the best transit of the entire trip, complete with a traditional dance up and down the aisle by a freakishly masked Peruvian who pulled three ladies—I was first—out of their seats to dance with him; followed by a fashion show which was an obvious play for our tourist dollars, but which was so charmingly and entertainingly executed by our adorable young attendants that they succeeded quite easily with us. Ian bought me a gorgeous baby alpaca poncho, which I have with me in the clinic today.

Also on that train we finally learned the provenance of A’s counterfeit 20-sole note. One of the ironies of the money in Peru was that their own notes were tattered, smelly, crumpled things, while they wouldn’t take anything other than mint-fresh from us—and yet somewhere, at a bank or an exchange or a shop or somewhere, someone had given A a 20-sole note that she couldn’t spend. We had finally noticed a line of white-out on it, after the fifteenth time she tried to buy something with it and it had been rejected, and on that train trip back to Cuzco, her seatmates,  lovely Miamians who spoke Spanish as well as English, finally figured out the words that had been covered up: “dinero afortunato”. Lucky Money.

We all broke into slightly hysterical laughter. 

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Almost There!

We're woozily in Atlanta. My goodness Americans are tall! And bathroom stalls are ENORMOUS! And where's the bin where you throw your used TP???

Our flight to Seattle from here will be almost as long as our flight from Lima to here.


one-fingered on my phone

Friday, November 30, 2012

Heading Home

We're in the Lima airport right now, about to board our flight to Atlanta, and then back to Seattle. It's much quicker this way than on our way out, because it's more of a straight shot to America North from this coast of America South than the other coast. It's only a three-hour time change from here to Seattle at this time of year, so our readjustment should be relatively easy. If you don't take into account the vastly different temperature gradients and amount of daylight.

Since I last wrote, our trip changed. We left the high elevations for the Amazon basin, which was AWESOME. I look forward to continuing my story wrapped in my new baby alpaca shawl, as well as many, many blankets, curled up in front of our fireplace and our twinkling tree.

But now, time to find our boarding gate.

one-fingered on my phone

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Machu Picchu and the Sanctuary Lodge

Machu Picchu is pretty spectacular, and I can see why folks are awestruck when they see it in person. Not *all* of the stones in the terraces, walls, and buildings appear to have been melted together--there is some use of mortar in places--but enough of them are laid gaplessly stone-on-occasionally-giant-how-on-earth-did-they-get-it-there-stone to be impressive, and a little unbelievable. Many of the best-constructed walls have stones that are perfectly, uniformly curved at their meeting edges, slightly recessing the seams between rocks, and adding to the aura of unreality. How did these stonemasons shape this granite so uniformly?

Yesterday afternoon, Ian and I, clinging to the cliff-side so we wouldn't plunge to our untimely deaths hundreds of feet below on the banks of the Urubamba River, took a trail out the back of the site to an old Incan bridge. Fortunately, the final approach to the bridge--a deep, stone U-shape in the cliff wall trail, crossed by four, several-yard-long warped planks of hardwood--had been blocked by park officials. Who knows what tragedy my love of a challenge may have led to.

The main site was overrun by teenagers maniacally taking pictures of each other with digital cameras. "They really have become a scourge," Ian said. About the cameras.

The Sanctuary Lodge itself is a boutique, breathtakingly expensive, all-inclusive hotel just outside the gates to the park. You can see a bit of the Machu Picchu citadel from the stone hot tub up at the top of the garden, and Ian and I watched the last light fade over the mystic city from there.

This would all, in fact, be a completely magical place if it weren't for one thing: it's in Peru.

Peru gives the impression of being an up-and-coming, well-established and organized place. Peru excels at marketing. You can book tickets for all sorts of things online from the US: train tickets, tours, hotels (even the $10/person/night hostel we used in Puno). Airplane tickets on LAN Peru were a bit more difficult, as we had a complicated itinerary (Iguacu-Sao Paolo-Lima-La Paz, then Cuzco-Lima-Iquitos, then Iquitos-Lima), so I spoke directly with an agent for those. Marsh had voiced worry about the reliability of plane reservations in South America in general, and I assured him that LAN was a global company and part of OneWorld with British Airways and other well-established international carriers. Even so, I called an agent before leaving Seattle, just to make sure. Veronica assured me that we had E-tickets and our seats were confirmed.

This is perhaps not the fault of Peru, but our first troubles of the trip came when we went to check in at Iguacu to come to the Altaplana. Our reservations had been dropped. We got on our flight with no real trouble, but we were seated one by one in middle seats. This happened again from Lima to La Paz, with the added complexity of different information about where and when to pick up bags, with the result that some rode with us to La Paz and some didn't (they arrived late at night in La Paz).

For our trip across Lake Titikaka, I had booked through a glossy Peruvian website that implied we'd steam up the lake from Bolivia to Puno, Peru, visiting, among other things, a floating reed village. We did not. We steamed around the Bolivian end of the lake and then were put on a bus to the Peruvian border, where we had to get off the bus and collect our bags and cross on foot, then put our bags on a different bus for a three-hour ride through shockingly litter-filled countryside to Puno, where torrential rain was flooding the  streets. In Puno we had to get out of the bus in that rain and transfer our bags to a minivan to get to our hostel, with a terribly ill trip member (this was our first clinic night). Strike one, Peru.

Our bus early the next morning, a clever tourist bus going to Cuzco with several stops along the way and a toilet on board, was close-by the hostel. The company wanted to be paid in US dollars, $180 of them. I handed over a wad of twenties I'd received from my bank just before leaving the US.and boarded the bus. Marsh got on several minutes later and told me that he'd had to exchange several of my bills for some that he had, because mine were "broken." My new twenties weren't good enough. Strike two, Peru.

The bus trip was okay--we did have several opportunities to get off and walk around, but the "bilingual" "guide" was a hyper-chipper fast talker who had only a bare grasp of English. Since by this point I understand Spanish pretty well, at least tour-contextually, and mostly what I wanted to do was sleep, this endless nattering and, at times, wild conjecture about what we were seeing, was hard to take. At least the English version of everything was relatively short. Strike 2 1/2.

Somewhere in here--the oxygen-starved memory is foggy on the details--I received an email from LAN saying that our flight from Lima to Iquitos had changed and they were sorry for any inconvenience. The inconvenience with this turned out to be that our flight from Cuzco to Lima had not also changed, and so we were set to arrive in Lima 30 minutes after our plane took off for the Amazon. Strike 3 1/2.

We had one full day scheduled in Cuzco, and Ian and I spent it, not unhappily, managing plane reservations at a LAN office and mailing a box home. I do like to get into the nitty-gritty of a place, and figuring out how to find a box for our belongings and get them in the mail definitely fit the bill.

At the main post office there was a little kiosk with a stack of used cardboard boxes outside. We brought in our things and a little lady packed them in, then taped the box closed, then wrapped it several times in stretch plastic both directions around the box, then taped the stretch plastic down on the ends and the edges multiple times. It's a good thing I'd written the address in a super-big font. All this for about 10 soles. I then went across the street to get a copy of my passport (Peruvians are big on wanting to copy your passport), and when I got back, the lady took us through behind the counter at the PO and handed us off. I filled out a customs form in quintuplicate, put a fingerprint on each of the five pages, gave over my passport copy and 185 soles for our 5.6 kg box (much of that tape and Saran wrap), and we were on our way. We did add 20 postcard stamps to our order, which brought the total up another 120 soles. At that rate, it looks like our box will be sent by paddle boat.

My one finger is cramping, and my phone-holding hand is numb, so I'm going to sign off for the moment and continue this story  later . . . stay tuned.

one-fingered on my phone

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pinnacle and Nadir

Lake Titikaka is a truly surprising place. It is somewhere around 13,000 feet in elevation, and has no outflow except occasionally during the rainy season. It's huge--in many places you can't see land across it--but it's too saline for the people eking out their livings along its vast shores to use as a source of water, either for drinking or as irrigation. There are trout farms anchored around many of its shorelines, and countless villages and even some significant towns dot the barren, tundra-like land. Tundra-like in vegetation and chill, but hilly, with snow-capped peaks in the distances . . . when the distances are visible.

We did one hike of about 3 km on Sun Island, on the Bolivian side of the lake (part of our catamaran tour), which was gravely difficult for four of us, and nearly killed A, who suffers from migraines with much more regularity and severity than I ever have, and who had had one in La Paz the night we arrived (which was the night before our hike). She had been given oxygen in our Radisson, and used up her migraine meds, which themselves had not responded well to the altitude. Mom and I and Wendy, our tour guide, did a bunch of doctoring on the boat, but it was all we could do ourselves not to collapse.

It turns out that for me, the best way to deal with the altitude has been to sleep on all buses, my head lolling against Ian's shoulder, for pretty much the whole of any trip up in the Altaplana. On our boat, I asked for my bed the moment we stepped on board. I have never slept so easily or so completely or so often or so long in my life, even as an infant. It's been glorious, the sleep, but it does mean that our trek from La Paz to Cuzco has been dreamlike. Ian, fortunately, has been in relatively good shape, so there is a good photographic record that I can look at to remember what we did.

We ended up cutting our boat tour short in Copacabana, Bolivia, known for having a cathedral that blesses cars, by several hours and another hike. Ostensibly this was to aid A, but we all benefited from time to shop and chill out a bit. We hit an internet cafe and Ian found a clinic in Puno, Peru, where we were headed, and where A was able to get some excellent medical attention and some different headache meds.

And the next morning, yesterday, we got on bus number 7000 and I slept through most of the end of the Altaplana and on into Cuzco.

I was awake for the highest point of our journey, however, long enough to take the picture above. It was about the elevation of Mt Rainier, around 14,000 feet. And we drove there!

Aside from a cold (me) and some runs (all of us), we seem to be on the mend. Three more nights at altitude, and then we're on to Iquitos on the Amazon.

Things are looking up! And down!

one-fingered on my phone

Sunday, November 18, 2012

(Gasp! Gasp!) Bolivia!

La Paz is a city unlike any other I've ever seen. I don't think the mental, oxygen-deprived fog that I first saw it through influenced my appreciation of its varied charms, but it was, and continues to be, quite the fog (excuse my less-than-perfect writing--the fog, the fog).
We've only been here a couple hours; the first 1 1/2 spent going through customs and retrieving 2 of our 5 bags. What's surprising about this is that any of or bags made it at all, as our itinerary to get here was Iguacu-Sao Paolo-Lima-La Paz, with about ten hours over night in Lima. In Iguacu we were told to pick up our bags in Lima (I assume because we were transiting through Peru from Brazil, and would need to go through customs). In the event, our bags were checked through to, in teeny print, LPB, and they did not appear in Lima. We had not received boarding passes through to La Paz. This morning in Lima we checked in, only to be told our reservations had been canceled (yes, midway through our flight). The agent was able to get us seats (4 middles and an aisle), and she stuck one each of our baggage claim tags, which Marsh was carrying all in a bunch, on our boarding passes. Not necessarily the passes that belonged with the bags, although the passes DID belong with the tags. Confusing traveling with five.
Time went by.
We landed in La Paz at a higher elevation than airplane cabins are pressurized to, so my half-drunk water bottle let air out when I opened it instead of in, and I realized I felt pretty woozy, a feeling familiar from 2008 when my lungs were half full of cancer. And then I got pneumonia.
This altitude stuff had me worried from the start, and I was quite anxious last night from Sao Paolo to Lima, and I was not at all surprised, when I pulled out my handy oximeter while waiting for bags to be located at the La Paz airport,We that my blood oxygen level was around 82%. That's pretty low, folks.
Anyway, I was able to appreciate the sights from our taxi: dirty and cobbled roads, women wearing traditional Andean skirts and bowler hats, and lots of busy-looking short-legged dogs. And then our taxi driver arrived at the ridge above the actual city, and it was spectacular, with two snowy peaks guarding the cram-packed valley. Steep neighborhoods of brick homes with football pitches carved out of hillsides march down to a colorful center of high rises. And all the way down, women still appeared in traditional garb.
I'm sorry we don't have time to acclimate here; we're getting on a catamaran across Lake Titikaka tomorrow morning super early, but I would love to come back some time.
While I've been writing this Ian got a call from the luggage agent that the three missing bags--his, Marsh's, and A's--had been found in Lima and will be here by 7 pm tonight. And I've found, maybe with the assistance of the coca tea served on arrival at the Radisson here, maybe just from lying down, maybe from the anti-altitude sickness meds, that my oxygen levels are doing better. Up to 93% if all I'm doing is breathing and staring at my oximeter.
Phew! Nap time!
one-fingered on my phone

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


We've had a lovely time with weather that, while not always clear and sunny, has been very tropical both in humidity and torrential downpours (and warmth!). I have tried to link to Ian's photo album: if it didn't work, I'll try again. If it did, awesome! Keep checking for new pics, and possibly a new album.

one-fingered on my phone

Friday, November 09, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

One issue I’ve discovered—at least over the last year—with giving up writing a blog exclusively about my health and my cancer situation, is that I have very little to write about other than my travels. Or, if that is not exactly true, I have had very little time to write about anything other than my travels. Even my last stay in Jerome Creek, with all the troubles (manufactured and not), afforded me more time to write than being back in Seattle has since them. This has not been an altogether bad thing; on the contrary, I’ve greatly enjoyed flitting all over the globe, filling my thickening passport with extra pages and stamps and visas. However, it’s meant that when I’m home in Seattle I am necessarily spending a lot of time living health care. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to just live.

I am writing this from the SCCA clinic today,  my 40th birthday (holy cow—FOUR-ZERO!), because tomorrow morning we leave on another sweeping international adventure. We’re going to South America with my mom and Marsh and a friend of theirs. I’ve been the main only travel agent (with the exception of our lodging in Rio, which Ian secured), and even though I have a small grasp of Portuguese and a smaller grasp of Spanish, and even though Ian and I could make our way reasonably comfortably across our neighbor continent to the south, I’m looking forward to handing in my keycard and company computer at SeaTac tomorrow morning and letting Mom do the speaking in Brazil and A.T., a retired high school Spanish teacher, lead us through Bolivia and Peru.

I already feel different today. I have spent 2012 thinking about how I’d like to change my ways of being. How to stick up for myself and my needs (including how to recognize my needs), while still being a force for good in the world. How to determine which parts of my life are necessary and which parts are chaff. How to recognize Truth in others; how to protect myself from exploitation—whether conscious or not—from those who haven’t yet found their own peace. I have begun a practice of energy work and introspection that has allowed me to flush mental chatter and open up vast swaths of space in my days. I am still doing as much, but I am now usually on time and unhurried.

I am looking forward to calendar space as well as mental space in the coming year. As I’ve cleared clutter, I’ve come to re-recognize the beauty of my surroundings here at my home in Seattle, and at our budding home on Orcas. I am excited to spend time here, in the coming year, that is free from medical appointments, and free from travel planning. I have spent 13 weeks away from home since last November, more than 3 months, on 4 continents. I’ll hit continent 5 on Sunday, 5 within a year. This is, and has been, thrilling, but 3 months away doesn’t begin to include all the time involved in planning those trips. Not surprisingly, healthcare became truly a full-time job when I was in town.

My time at the clinic today has come to an end and I’m back home, and now I am in desperate need of getting the actual items into the actual luggage so that I’ll have, at the very least, a change of clothes for balmy Rio Sunday afternoon. And maybe my meds.

Yay 40!

Friday, September 28, 2012

And Some of it Was Perfect

I've added some pictures here. Shadow and I had a ride this afternoon, a short one as these things go, so all three dogs could come along. A family outing, if you will. The last several pictures are from hanging out in the yard after the ride. Dogs and I lounged on the grass at Shadow's feet, and I took pictures of everybody (and then a last trip to the sunset).

It was the perfect last day.

It Wasn’t All Bad

I have enjoyed several parts of my trip out here to Jerome Creek, and I want to be sure to give them their due:

  • ·         my friend MS came out last night and we had a beautiful ride, and an excellent dinner at the Hoo Doo.
  • ·         The ride took us over two trails I’d worked on earlier this trip, where I’d been hanging from trees as I trimmed them. I had ridden the trails bareback on Shadow, and I’d done a good job with the height for that; riding Sikem with a saddle (and the extra 3 or so inches of headroom needed) also worked! No more sharp, pokey dead pine branches in the eyeball!
  • ·         G&N had me over for delectable lamb burgers and Greek salad the night before, and I brought along a peach cobbler that wasn’t so bad, either.
  • ·         Sadie has found a job that I praise her for, much to the disappointment of her sister-dog. A couple days ago I was outside with dogs, talking on the phone with my mom, when I noticed Sadie standing at the door to the sun porch near where I was chatting, grrring and talking—not barking—in an insistent but not eardrum-piercing way. I let her inside and she ran immediately across the kitchen to the back porch, to where Tessa, who had been inadvertently left inside, had dragged the galvanized bucket holding Spackle’s food. The bucket was on its side, and Tessa was just beginning the process of figuring out how to unclamp its lid and enjoy its tasty insides. “Tessa, BAD DOG,” I said. “Sadie, GOOD dog.” The next morning, I forgot to close the cabinet door where Tessa and Sadie’s food is stored. I heard a low-grade grrrring and went onto the back porch, where both dogs were on their beds, but Sadie was very clearly keeping Tessa at bay. I again praised her, “Good dog, Sadie!”, and Tessa gave her a disgusted look as I closed and latched the cupboard. 
  • ·         In the vein of forgetting to close things, the other evening after I’d finished wrapping Snickers and putting the horses to bed, I turned to come back to the house and saw Shadow, out, standing across the road from me. “Shadow!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing? Get back into your pen!” I walked across the driveway to her and she walked briskly by me, nosed open her gate and went back in. I had forgotten to latch her chain, and she wanted to make sure I knew, not unlike this time
  • ·         A really awesome and satisfying hike with the dogs up from Jerome City to Maple Creek Landing, about 2 hours and maybe four miles?
  • ·         Seeing a big bull moose on a drive down the mountain
  • ·         Seeing an elk mama and twins
  • ·         Frogs in a little puddle left from White Trash Creek, the seasonal stream bisecting the front yard.
  • ·         The small plot of commercial pines that I limbed with my favorite birthday present ever, the folding saw that Ian gave me several years ago for hacking my way through the National Forest.
  • ·         The leap forward I’ve taken on my path to personal enlightenment.

Mom is flying to Moscow/Pullman airport tomorrow morning and Spackle and I are going to collect her and she’s going to accompany us on our homeward journey. You can bet we'll have a lot to talk about!

And here are some (very few, alas) pictures. There almost weren’t any, because, ironically, the day that I went to collect my new battery charger from the local PO, I lost my camera. I found it the next day, though, perched on top a “piling” on the “pier” on the pond. Fortunately, for this iteration of photographic tool, I purchased an “adventure proof” Pentax. Even if Tessa had managed to knock it into the water, it would’ve been okay. It’s made to be submerged as well as dropped and kicked!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Let’s Clear the Air

I’m sure many of you more evolved readers recognized, in my histrionic lists of details and melodramatic claims of being the BEST PERSON FOR THIS JOB, the breathtaking arrogance underlying it. I had not, although it has been my practice over the last few years to search within myself for answers to Life’s Questions, and so I knew some learning was on the cusp when this idyll became a hell.

I had already noticed that, at least in some aspects of life, if I’m having a hard time with something the difficulty probably lies somewhere inside me—after all, we can each interpret our environments best only from the internal standpoint. When we humans share communities and families, we also share frameworks and expectations, so when ten thousand pin pricks mar an otherwise perfect picture for me, and I describe those pin pricks, you all can relate, to some extent, to the frustration and disbelief that I’m experiencing.
Pin pricks, however, begin to be comical once they reach the point of caricature—like these ten thousand have. It has really felt to me as though every single thing I’ve done since arriving here has caused or revealed or portended a new problem. Everything.

In addition to the exhausting (if not quite exhaustive) lists I’ve already posted, when I turned out Sikem yesterday noontime, my finger got caught in his halter as I was removing it, and he was behaving like an ass anyway and leapt away, twisting my knuckle and bruising my pointer. “You hurt me,” I cried, with such childlike disbelief and anguish that a part of my brain thought whoa there. Where did that come from? I closed the horses in and sat down, sobbing, on the grass just outside their pen. Spackle knows from long experience that such things will pass, but Tessa and Sadie snuggled in, licking my face and refusing to be pushed aside. This was only somewhat comforting.

Also, yesterday, I decided to fix the indoor environment. It’s been a chilly 65, even with the struggling gas fire (another pin prick was having to learn how to light it, only partly successfully), which is not a temperature I find hospitable. After reviewing, in my mind (another prick—where were the instructions? Why had no one written them down???), the working of the giant wood-burning stove, I lit a fire in it . . . and discovered that it had been not only cleaned, but evidently re-blacked this summer (prick! prick! prick! prick! prick!). Before I asphyxiated inside (it was happening—I could feel it!), I opened a bunch of windows to the then cleaner outside air, also welcoming in the last of the summer’s flies (prick!), turned on several fans, and took the dogs outside while the poisons filtered out. Unfortunately, the fumes had no effect on the flies (an aside about the flies and killing them—I have smashed so many flies that all the other insects in the house I’ve just let be. The spiders, the moths, a strange beetle.)

A called yesterday morning, and I wrote the next couple paragraphs after her call. The rest of yesterday’s post is relatively obsolete and won’t be published, but this helped open me up for some much-needed person understanding:

A. called from central France this morning to check in—the first time they’ve been able to easily access a land line from which to telephone the States. I had thought that their radio silence might have been either of two things—1) they knew that everything would be fine with me, or 2) they suspected things weren’t and wished to continue their trip in peaceful ignorance. Since what’s really going on here is a combination of 1 and 2 (minus, evidently, their suspicions), it hadn’t occurred to me that the real reason for the lack of a call was simply 3) the difficulty of locating an actual telephone. At any rate, A stated, genuinely, that I was free to call Z to come back and take over, or to leave things with G&N and just extricate myself. They did not begrudge me the new pair of work gloves I bought for myself on their account at The Junction when I went in search of heavy horse salt, 30 minutes driving away.
Their flexibility in the care of their place is one of the reasons I am unbegrudgingly, myself, staying here; I know I could leave. But as I stated before, I care too much, and so I’m stapled here by my own moral judgment. And let me tell you, if you haven’t run afoul of my moral judgment yet, lucky you.

Here are the things that I learned about myself yesterday, which finally clarified and coalesced last night, kind of like head cheese if you’re the home butchering sort. If you’re not, you probably don’t want to imagine what that is.

I have a belief that just because I CAN do something, I MUST do it. I’ve recognized this pattern occasionally for several years, but hadn’t realized just how ingrained it was. It first came to my attention when, desperate to have the house clean before guests arrived, although I hadn’t taken the time to do it myself, I had enlisted the help of my mother. She was downstairs, cleaning my toilet, my mother, when I realized that, ability or not, I needed to hire housecleaners. Just because I could clean toilets didn’t mean that I had to, or even that I should (because I obviously wasn’t)—someone needs that money more than I need that work.

Nothing fundamentally different about that out here: I CAN deal with a lame horse, but does that mean I MUST? Yes, but only a conditional yes. I’ve been missing the “conditional” part: Saying yes to something does not always mean that one must follow through to the bitter end—especially when the parameters change unexpectedly or drastically, especially when there are other options available, and especially if the end is looking to be more bitter than it deserves. Not every agreement is a marriage. Contractors charge for change orders.

So, given all that, why was I still here, and why was I still letting myself feel constantly pricked? Then, then I recognized the shadow side. I saw the arrogance, and what it led to, the martyrdom. I was completely blind to the conditional. I had been acting, believing, not only that if I CAN I MUST, but also that what I can do is going to be better than what someone else will be able to do. That’s when I lost my breath for a moment, and felt, suddenly, deeply ashamed. Who am I to say that my ministrations are the ones that are needed? It’s been pretty clear that Snickers is getting better, even though her treatment is a far cry (prick!) from what the vets originally suggested. My torqued finger is fine this morning. The house is pleasantly warm and fresh-smelling; the flies virtually all dead (I’ve become expert with a swatter).

I am not a perfectionist in my own life, for things that I create for me; I am quite happy to leave errors so that Allah won’t be offended. It has been my habit however, when I take something on for someone else, to assume that they expect perfection of me. That the horse must stand calmly and steadily improve in the dictated manner. That I will be able to fix Sadie, who has licked herself raw out of anxiety—months ago and totally unrelated to me—and continues to do so. That I will leave the house sparklingly clean and all ready for the cold season. That I will finish tending to the tree farm. That I will clear important trails. That I will, in short, be better at caring for this place then K&A, who are not only two people, but are the homeowners, the ones who have set up this life to suit themselves. They are just happy to have me fit into it a little, so that they can have a short break. I may have skills that make me suited to be a temporary chatelaine here; but those skills are not unique, or uniquely necessary.

And therein lies revealed the shadows of arrogance and martyrdom. “I AM TRYING SO HARD TO DO EVERYTHING PERFECTLY!” I scream in my head. “WHY IS IT ALL SO DIFFICULT?!?” and, when offered a reprieve, a way out, I declare that “NO, I’m FINE.”  I will stay here—fighting against myself—and continue to beat up myself about it, and ultimately you, even though I desperately don’t want to hurt ANYONE.

Talk about choking environments.

So, here I’ve been, dizzy and ill, stuck in a whirlpool, rudder fouled by my own lines.

I’m not sure the weather out here, uncannily mimicking my internal struggles, has been anything more than an unrelated coincidence—that would be arrogant—but this morning, when I woke, light of heart, the sky was a clear, bright blue, not a cloud in it. You can see for miles.

N.B. I called Z this morning to see if he could take over before Sunday, and he needs to check with his other responsibility to make sure it’s okay with them, and then he’ll get back to me. I am, truly, perfectly comfortable with whatever happens. And Sikem responded well to me today.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just When I Thought Everything Was Going So Well

Dogs and I—deciding that “Moderate” levels of air uncleanliness would probably be reduced to almost “High-Normal” in the forest primeval, among the whispering pines and the hemlocks, and all their oxygenation powers—had a spectacular two-hour hike this midday. We drove up to where a Forest Service road—I can’t remember which one and am not currently bothering to look it up—splits off from the Jerome Creek road (which is also one, actually, FS 788), hiked up to Jerome City with its roofless, overgrown log hotel (nothing about it says “hotel” expect for K, once, telling about the place), its heaps of gravel, and its incipient creek. Dogs had a brief wallow in the muddy spring, and we headed up hill, on a trail I’ve ridden before, but it’s been awhile and it’s not that easy to get to with unshod horses.

The air was lovely in the woods, and we all swung along through trails and roads, and finally found a road that I’m pretty sure led to a trail that I’ve been trying to connect with for the last few years. It’s a trail that I rode most recently about 7 years ago? Maybe more? And so, if no one else has been on it, it’s probably vanished. I at least, today, identified the old logging road that led to it, though, so there’s some hope of connecting the two later this week. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there. It’s outside. It’s with dogs. It’s exploration! And I can’t hear the whinnying gimp, anxious for her grazing herd.

I had put Shadow and Sikem out in the yard the last two days because they’d at least be closer to Snick, and I held her on a lead yesterday and the day before and let her graze in their vicinity while her leg iced, but today when I opened the yard-side gates of their pens, Shadow stepped outside, looked around her, and went back in and stood by her other gate. Nope, she was not interested in being in the yard today, even though there is plenty of graze. I had no idea catering to her whim would become such a problem.

Dogs and I played in the pond for 15 minutes after we returned (Tessa’s return wallow at Jerome City, just before getting back into the car [but not into the house], made her look all the more hog-like. She’s a bit of a fatso, but not like some four-square fat labs—she just looks meaty and bacony) and then, STARVING, I came inside and heated up some tomato soup and made a grilled cheese sandwich. Right as I finished preparing lunch, and was sitting down to eat, Sadie started to grrr at something out on the road, and I heard Snickers begin to whinny, and I looked out and saw the silly thing trotting back and forth in her pen, whinnying and snorting and pooping, throwing her head around, completely disregarding the fact that she is in pain and on bed rest.

Snickers wasn’t even just trotting; she was dressage trotting. She looked like she was dancing. I had not experienced such lightness of foot while riding her, and was surprised and alarmed to watch it in a lame horse. I immediately abandoned my lunch and ran outside. Sadie, it turns out, was barking at someone who had parked a truck and stock trailer in the road just outside our driveway. He was collecting up the last of his free-range cattle before hunting season begins in a week, but the strange, slow, agitated movement of cattle and machinery was very alarming to the resident animals.

 Snickers continued to whinny up the hill where the rest of the herd presumably was having a big party that they hadn’t invited her to, glancing wild-eyed at the road, and really angrily calling to her mates. I had never heard just that quality of whinny before, and so I grabbed Snickers’s halter and went into her stall/pen to collect her and try to calm her down; right as I was finishing up with the buckle of her chin strap (after following her around for several moments trying to get her to stand still), she threw her head up and almost knocked herself out on the eave just above, stumbling around very (obviously) close to me and my ill-chosen footwear (wool Haflingers—I wasn’t in flip flops, at least). I decided that unhooking her lead rope—easier than taking the halter back off—and getting myself out—was probably the best bet. I threw her a flake of hay to distract her.

I retreated to the house and called up W, and we decided that, when I bring in the other horses in about 30 minutes now, I’ll take Snickers back down to her outside pen. If she’s trotting, clearly she can make the walk. Also, if she really has done damage to her tendon (although I am tending, after this afternoon’s display, to believe that much of it was histrionics not unlike that displayed by Italian footballers), maybe she’s been getting too high a dose of the pain killer. We decided that I will not administer tonight’s dose of bute, and that, depending on how she looks in the morning, I will turn out all three horses in a little corral along the creek, where it’s unlikely any of them could get up to much of a gallop. I’m debating about the bandages. I think I’d just have to leave them off, since she’d be walking through water.

I verified the bute and transfer with the vet’s assistant (the vet will be back in tomorrow, and I’ll call to update her then), gave Snickers the rest of her afternoon hay in her bag, and came back in to eat my lukewarm lunch. At least the salt I have to carry back down to the pens is the slightly licked, not quite 50-pound one instead of the new one.

Dogs: two thumbs up!

Horses: meh.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Last Gasp: A Rant, and A Coming of Age

It’s not hunting season yet here in Jerome Creek; it’s fire season. The area immediately around me here, with all the logging and National Forest land, seems to be relatively well-managed and we haven’t had too much in the way of local fires (I guess there was a small one, about two miles away, that burned for a week or so, but it was out before I got out here). A. had said to the previous house-watcher, Z., that in case of wildfire, open the gate for the horses, take the dogs, and get out. While that is excellent advice, it doesn’t do anything to protect us from the general air quality, which is listed for the weekend as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” meaning “everyone should limit exertion outdoors” and implying, I suppose, that those such as me, with cancer/pneumonia-scarred lungs, should limit exertion. Full stop.

I suppose, also, that the trail clearing I did for a couple hours yesterday afternoon, frequently sawing with my arm fully extended above my head, and sometimes perched on rotting spars, hanging onto a stronger limb with my non-sawing hand (bathed in sweat under my daypack)—I suppose that counts as “exertion”, and I’ve probably fulfilled my quota for the . . . ever.

By way of comparison, the air quality in Beijing today, as measured by the US Embassy, is listed at 192—which means you’re about to die. Out here, it’s only in the range of 101-150. These numbers are based on some measure of particulate matter as well as, perhaps, the type of particulate matter, but who knows. At any rate, it looks like it would behoove me, as well as my hooved charges, to stay close to home today, and by that I mean inside typing or knitting. Me, that is. The horses can stay out, or penned in, as is the case with Snickers. More about her later.

It’s hard for me to see the sun shining (well, glowing through the haze) and stay inside—being from the Pacific part of the Pacific Northwest means, in general, clean, wet, rainy air—and so no rain means go outside, yes? Yes, for most of the year, although the bowl of the city between two mountain ranges means that, by late August, heavy, filthy air pools over town. Flying in, you watch yourself descending through a dun-yellow layer. The layer was particularly dismaying this fiery September, returning to smoky, smoggy Seattle on the 12th, after a generous week in the crystalline late-summer air of watery Sweden. The rising sun on the 13th was End-of-Days Red. It was a bit of a drag being home—like taking a puff on a cigarette. My skin immediately began to feel dirty, my nose stuffy. As I slowly encrusted with a limn of filth, becoming dun colored myself to match my surroundings, I realized how much a creature of water I really am. Coming out here has not made that observation less acute.

Note: I went outside briefly to tend to Snickers and I wore one of my headscarves over my face. I didn’t bring my oxymeter along with me this trip, but I’m definitely staying inside. It’s bad out there.

I have also discovered that I am an aging creature of water—maybe not quite a 300-year-old sturgeon yet, but definitely not 30 anymore. And so, when Snickers immediately came up lame, my first morning here, I was not thrilled to be given yet another opportunity to show off my rancher’s skills.

In the case of Snickers, she was lame with a stone bruise on her right front hoof for a few weeks (?), up until the day K&A left for their trip (Europe, 11 Sept-4 Oct). She was given sturdy shoes on the morning of the 11th, with pads built in so that the rocky terrain wouldn’t continue to injure her sensitive soles, and then she was turned out with the other horses and went galloping off up the hill—after weeks on stall rest—and K&A left, she went out daily for a week, and on the 19th when I went to let the horses out, Snickers couldn’t put any weight on her right leg at all.


This is where 1) having some knowledge about horses and 2) loving this family and their animals, are MAJOR inconveniences. I let Shadow and Sikem out, and brought Snickers up to the Garagemahal where I found her last recovery stall still recognizable as a sick-bed: there is a deep, soft layer of sawdust in Sikem’s stall and pen, the nearest one to the house. I stumbled upon wraps—evidence of leg-care—on the work bench in the garage. I gave Snickers some hay, then came inside to call W, K&A’s daughter in Seattle, who knows the place in and out and is also comfortable issuing directives about her parents’ animals. We decided to have the vet in.

To sum up: Snickers’s right foot seems to be fine, although with a slightly suspicious swelling in a spot on the coronet (just above the hoof). This could be related to a deeply cystic stone bruise; it could be nothing. Her tendon between the pastern (ankle) and the knee (knee), however, is swollen and sore. To help her heal, she is having both front legs wrapped (note: by me), with big puffy bandages and leg-wrapping material, that I’ve had to tape on because the wraps don’t have Velcro or anything else (I had to go in search of tape). Snickers was not happy to hear the startling sound of duct tape unrolling under her belly the first night. These bandages are essentially support hose.

Twice a day, although for my own peace of mind it’s going to be once a day, she gets a cold-pack for 15-20 minutes, which means unwrapping and wrapping and unwrapping and wrapping her right leg.

(An aside: Tessa just farted a BIG ONE in the kitchen. I feel that that is, truly, the final insult. I can’t go outside; and now I’m about to expire inside as well. Stupid dogs.)

Since Snickers is in a stall, I have to feed her morning and evening, and it’s better to feed her from a bag, which hangs and she doesn’t have to bend down, putting more pressure on her front legs. The bag was difficult to find, but I did find it after about an hour. It also takes me about 5 minutes to feed in a hay bag, instead of 20 seconds to chuck hay over the side of the stall. Today I have to toss down another bale of hay from the loft (I think these are smallish, 75-pound bales, but I haven’t tried to move one yet), which I’m sure is going to freak the horse out. I’m thinking I’ll try and toss it out onto the driveway . . .

The water in the barn is turned off, for some reason, so I had to go search out hoses with which to fill her water tank every day (note: her water is also Spackle’s favorite outside drinking water source.). I had to bring salt up from the outdoor pens (about 45 pounds left in the 50-pound block) which meant I had to go into town and buy more salt for the pens. That was fine, however, because I also had to go into town for the medication that I have to administer 2Xday. I had tried to get the oral injectable version, which is like a big syringe of worming goop that you squirt behind the molars, but the vet was out so I ended up with an orange-flavored powder (the vet: “Orange, yeah. Horses don’t eat oranges, so I’m not sure about that.”) that I have to mix with syrup and grain (so the powder sticks, and so she’ll eat it). This is messy, and the powder is “not to be used on horses meant for human consumption”, which, the way it appeared in two lines on the jar, made me think at first that they were saying “Not to be used on horses; Meant for human consumption.” This was briefly confusing for the internal linguist, but I figured it out. Note to readers: do not ever eat Snickers, horse-version. She’s had a lot of bute.

AND, finally, because she’s now in a stall, I need to scoop poop every day and because she’s much closer to the house with all her poop, the flies have come back. I’ve probably killed at least 60 flies inside in the last 4 days. This starts to get disgusting, after a while.

I’m not sure if I’m done listing ALL THE THINGS I HAVE TO DO, but I’ve gotten very bored with it and so I’m going to stop. I was feeling quite resentful of K&A yesterday, that I was out here doing A LOT of work, when really all I wanted to do was ride, wander, and write—at Shadow’s pace, which has slowed considerably this year, as I’d wished for mine to do as well. But the fact is, K&A are going to be SO GLAD that I was here, and SO SORRY anyway, that I had to deal with all this, and they are wonderful, dear people who have enriched my life in immeasurable ways. So, much as I am tired of the hassle and covered with dirt and smoke, inside and out, and disappointed that this visit isn’t the vacation in paradise that I have come to expect—although, part of my previous definition of paradise INCLUDED being able to solve problems difficult for the standard housesitter, and that definition is clearly changing—even though all of that is true, I am unbegrudging in my care for these animals and this place. I, too, am VERY GLAD that I am the one here right now.

But . . . as Shadow ages, and as K&A age, and as I age . . . my standard of spending weeks here, year after year, is coming to a close. I could see another, shorter trip next June, maybe, when conditions are the perfect blend between wet and dry; and a long weekend in the late fall, maybe for a couple more years . . . but life is moving on for all of us who love it out here.

Two valuable lessons that have come from Jerome Creek: I will happily rent out my pastureland to livestock owners who will be entirely in charge of their livestock. Also, I will buy a grand piano long before I’ll buy a horse. I think Ian will go along with me on these. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stringing Me Along

The last time I was in Stockholm several parts of my life were unraveling, and all the silky, curly yarn from Gotland sheep was not going to be enough to knit me back together. Ian and I had been traveling for three and a half months in limbo, having sold our cars and rented our house; our tie to Seattle and home was the first loosening thread. Through the summer, throughout Europe, we were continuing the process of procuring visas to move to New Zealand (note: although we refer to this time of our lives as “when we moved to New Zealand,” the process of visa acquisition ultimately ground to a lengthy, bitter, fatal end, and the move never actually happened.).

The first three months of summer 2007 were relatively laid-back as travel goes; three weeks in Greece, a couple in Scotland, and about five in Portugal (including 10 restfully domestic days at a loaner house on the Atlantic coast), punctuated with a glamorous weekend in Ravello, Italy, some stops in London (new friends!), a quick trip to Phoenix, AZ—me—and Oxford, UK—Ian (where we had completely opposite meteorological experiences).

And then we went on to the Baltics. We hadn’t been to the Baltics before, and so we became, for two weeks, true back packers, traveling from Riga to Šiauliai to Kihnu and back, staying no place longer than a night or two, and moving on with, in my case at least, about 70 pounds of gear lugged front and back (I don’t travel lightly for a week; of course I needed an entire household for four months). Not surprisingly, this was exhausting for mid-30-somethings, particularly me, whose health was another of the increasingly errant threads. 

By the time we reached Sweden, we were spent. The language, even though my linguistics graduate-school friend G had created a brilliant workbook for us to help us begin to learn it—or at least say please and thank you and excuse me—seemed as opaque to me as Sanskrit. Some family members met us at Arlanda upon our arrival and we drove north, to Härnosand, where G and his lovely wife A were living at the time. I’ll conclude this multi-paragraph introduction/background by saying that, by the time we all left G&A and reached Stockholm, for the end of our trip, that family tie was unknotting as well.

Jump forward just over five years, and it turns out that Swedish, although still virtually incomprehensible to me in spoken form, is a Germanic language with tons of cognates recognizable (in printed form) to seasoned travelers (one being a dilettante linguist) with backgrounds in English and German. Also, every Swede we talked to spoke easily intelligible English. G&A are now residents (at least part-time) of Södermalm, Stockholm’s hippest neighborhood (it reminds me a lot of Park Slope and environs in Brooklyn), and G gave us an exhaustive (and really tiring, as we were still not quite over our jet lag) tour when we first arrived from Lysekil, and the next day with A home the four of us continued our tour with a 6-hour circuit of much of their island (punctuated with stops for coffee and lunch).

Set free on Monday and Tuesday, Ian and I did our best to shore up the (it would seem already relatively strong) economy of Sweden by hemorrhaging money for clothes of the knitted and work-wear styles, effortlessly traversing the city on clean, frequent buses, shown the way by helpful locals, as G and A went about their respective jobs in Uppsala and Falun (university professors both). It was a tremendous intellectual pleasure to spend time with G (and without the soporific effects of long-term Amelia friendship, which I’d necessarily cut off before international travel).

This last week many of those old threads and a couple new ones—combined with the glow of Stockholm in late summer—knitted back together into an exquisitely detailed, warm, intricate, and stimulating cloak of many colors. Stockholm is one of the most attractive, easily toured cities I’ve ever been to, and spending a few days there helped me weave together my evolving understanding of home, health, and family; just as I stitched in the ends of my latest hat on my return flight. Home is wherever I am. I love Seattle; but I have become a global citizen.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Pictures from Lysekil

We go to Stockholm this morning, back to mass transit and city bustle. Please enjoy pictures of glowing air and shining water here.

Lysekil, Sweden

Contrary to how it appears to be pronounced if you're a native English speaker--an elided, furtively mumbled version of License to Kill--the name of the town is actually pronounced something more like "Lees-uh-sheeul", with the "sheeul" part said deep in the back of the throat. Swedish, as spoken, is definitely a language I have little experience with.

We're here at this resort town--about 1 month post-summer season (and yes, it's 7 Sept)--for Ian to teach another course in AD Model Builder, a stock assessment software that was originally developed (I believe) by one of his PhD advisors, and which he has now taught in Chile and Japan, as well as here. I, of course, given any opportunity to fling myself out into the world beyond Seattle, am here to . . . well . . . be here.

It turns out that Lysekil at this time of year is a perfect place to clear out any sort of gunks, cobwebs, old habits, and thought patterns that have long since lost any value and are just circling tiredly around the same decaying mind-tracks. That's true, at least, if nature can get into your psyche, and let me tell you, it can.

It is starkly bright in the day times here, with a blinding white-gold sun, glinting off sparklingly clean buildings and streets. The streets also sparkle because of the high quartz content of the locally produced paving stones. Walking with Ian and his co-teacher, A, to the Institut every morning is a bit like walking along a path strewn with diamonds. Even with my sunnies on, I'm squinting a lot.

The light may be so dazzling because of the latitude and time of year--58 degrees north, approaching the equinox, whereas Seattle is about 47 degrees (equal with Munich, for some perspective)--but the atmosphere is also shockingly clear. There are not many people up here, and not any industry, and no hint of pollution. The sun stabs right through not only the sunnies and the clothes, but flesh and bone and long-held secrets.

It has also been, except for a delicious few hours yesterday morning, windy. Really windy. Like, blow your knit stocking cap off your head windy. In part, for me, that's because I've decided to let my hair grow back and see what state it's in, and so it's too long to act like Velcro with my hats any more and instead is like fine, slippery threads of silk, but really it's the wind. Once the sun has exposed your innermost fears and shames, the wind races in to scour everything clean.

We're on a peninsula here at the mouth of a fjord opening into a branch of the North Sea. One characteristic of fjords is that they tend to be shallow at the mouth and deep up inside, because the glaciers that formed them, when they finally melted, left all sorts of debris near the sea. What's left of the land after that ice age bulldozing, at least here, are rounded granite hillocks, deeply veined with pink and orange and silvery quartz. An enterprising man in Lysekil's history quarried much of the stone for building in the town; fortunately, his wife recognized the beauty and uniqueness of the area and got him to stop, leaving a nature preserve at the very tip of our peninsula. I spent yesterday morning's calm meandering along the shoreline and up over the tops of these mounds.

The clarity of the water and the abundance of light make it possible to see deep down, to waving grasses and tiny fish. There are hardly any barnacles on the rocks, very few mussels that I've seen, and occasional schools of teeny fish, but the richness of sea life along the rocky shores in the Pacific Northwest is almost completely un-duplicated here. I finally made the connection by the end of my meander yesterday--by some weird aquatic physics, there is no tide to speak of, and so no inter-tidal zone, and the pools of water shining amongst the granite mounds are either from spray (when the wind blows, it blows water), or from the occasional downpours (the third arm of the cleansing atmosphere is torrential rain). We asked someone at the celebratory feast last night if she knew anything about why there were no tides--it's not a lake; it's not the Mediterranean--and she said "I really don't know anything about tides. We don't have tides here; I never thought about it."

Earth is a fascinating place.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Anti 9-to-5

Being out in Idaho is different this time. In part, I was here relatively recently, in the middle of the depths of winter (even though it was March), and I didn’t ride horses at all then, so maybe I’m out of the habit. I’ve only ridden twice in the 6 days I’ve been here—a far cry from one visit, long ago, when I was here for three weeks and rode a horse every single day—yes, 21 days in a row. I hold that summer in my mind as one of my pinnacles of happiness. It’s that memory, as well as other beliefs I have about myself and horses, that make me feel I’ve been lazy here, only riding Shadow because I don’t have to saddle her, and her only once since K&A took off Wednesday.

The weather is different this year though, as well.  It has been non-conducive to riding—the parts of riding where you have to wear long pants, and sit on a hot back, or a hot saddle, and chafe your hot under parts—with temperatures in the upper 80s and humidity (which is rare here) to match. Contrarily, it will be a lovely temperature—around 70—but then there have been accompanying Heavenly Histrionics (thunder, lightning, rain, and hail), that have made it very clear that inside is the correct place for Girl and Dogs.

Dogs. That’s another thing, obviously. No Hoover. I think Sadie is sad. Only because I’m here, of course, because I’m supposed to have brought him along; I’m sure she’s relieved for the lack of Hoover in day-to-day life. He packed a punch of energy and excitement about things though, that dog, and we’re sort of rudderless out here without him—not that he was much of a straight-line sailor. One impetus for me getting on a horse before was Hoover needing and wanting all the exercise he could get. As it is right now, these three dogs, even Sadie, are fine with whatever I’m doing without horses, and seem to be okay with my limitations. Which are definitely not confining—yesterday, which was 70 degrees AND clear—the perfect day to ride—I just didn’t feel like bothering. And so instead, we took a hike (over an hour) in the morning, and then another one  (maybe another 2 hours) in the afternoon—lots of time outdoors, none of it saddling a horse (Sikem) who would have to be convinced that going out was fun, anyway. And I know he’d like it once we were out—just as I would—but I didn’t have enough oomph to chivvy us both

Tessa is a complete stinkerpants at the moment—really, really smelly. She was, a moment ago, lying in a pool of sun near my feet . . . and then her milk-chocolate coat started to heat up, and the next thing I knew the batty ghosts of an abattoir were wafting around my head with sunken eyes and ragged wings. Fortunately, the dog got up and moved across the room before I passed out. In the summer when she’s out a lot, Tessa supplements her food with any stinky thing she finds lying about—horse or cow shit, and probably worse things. She smells like it.

I do have a framework here—the Anti Nine-to-Five Job, , so it’s not like we wander aimlessly all day. In the morning right after I get up I let out horses and feed dogs, then I go up the hill and check on other horses, and pigs, and chickens, and cats (I swear, those two cats must spend all night long in their litter boxes—I mean, really, seven poops and pees in EACH BOX overnight? For only two average-sized cats? I haven’t owned cats as an adult, but is that normal?). Then I come back home, have breakfast, and the day—well, about 8 hours of it before everyone gets brought in and fed again—stretches before us, a blank slate. Possibilities for activities are, of course, endless, but our focuses here including knitting a cashmere cap that I can wear while I’m still virtually bald; writing on various subjects, reading likewise; hiking; horseback riding; cooking; driving around the neighborhood; N’s piano (really out of tune, sadly), sunbathing; farm amusements (fixing gates and fences, fetching with dogs in the pond, etc.). Evening events include food prep and eating, chats with Ian when he’s within cell range, and the potential for video watching. So far, the video potential hasn’t been realized.

It really is summer vacation out here—slow, sultry, few requirements except reading. It’s giving me a lot of time to reflect on just what I do want to do, at this point in my life, almost 40, and mellowing out. 

Monday, April 09, 2012

Yep, Vegas BABY.

This has been, so far, the perfectly right place for me to be. I'm a little drunk right now, appropriately, because I just had a Manhattan with Maker's 46, which I assume is specially aged or something, upgraded for free at the bar where I've been eating my solitary, absolutely delicious, dinners. "It's smoother," said the bartender, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and was a teacher for some time before realizing he could make ten times a much tending bar at the Mandalay Bay.  The fancy Maker's and the two cherries certainly made a very lovely dessert.

It turns out that, if you're alone, people chat with you, tell you stories about themselves, ask you what you do. I have yet to tell anyone that the bulk of what I spend my time on is cancer abatement and management, and I've enjoyed being just a slightly odd hotel guest.

I walked 4 miles to a Barnes and Noble today, for example (evidently really odd, not just slightly), and discovered that the wasteland that is Las Vegas isn't just confined to the Strip and all its casinos and crowds, but is multi-layered and complex, with not only hundreds of families and small children about (the "beach" here is shoulder to shoulder tipsy humanity and its offspring), but also tract after tract of barren, trash-strewn desert (and occasional trash-strewn, empty canals).

And yet, as a lone traveler, I'm far from ignored, and I have to admit, the weather that I was desperate for, has been hugely in evidence. Ah, the warmth!

I'm so glad I don't go home until Wednesday.

one-fingered on my phone

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wherein I Begrudgingly Admit That Jerome Creek in March is Not Entirely Devoid of Value

The first thing I’ve discovered since returning home is that I seem to be back up to a pretty good level of fitness after my China Flu.  This, I am sure, would’ve taken much longer if I’d been in my own house, with only my two dogs (or even only Spackle, which I did when Ian was in Hawaii during my recovery). I would’ve left them to their own devices, or at most given them nominal walks, just enough so that Spackle could poop outside his yard (Hoover is, alas, much less fastidious). But with four dogs, two of whom are high-energy indoor wrasslers if not properly exercised (and I have yet to exercise them too much, even if my estimates of them running up to 60 miles in a day are correct), I really would only get peace if I wore them out. Yes, this wore me out too for the first couple days, but by the end of the week, I could charge up a hill at a fast clip for much longer without getting short of breath. And my riding lesson yesterday, even the day after chemo and Herceptin, was fun and a workout, and pretty much like my lessons were BC (before China). So, yes, my week-long boot camp did my body good.

Also, Seattle’s spring is advanced somewhat in vegetation and temperature (no freezes at night anymore, although the days are not as warm as many days last week in Idaho), but by no means dry, and I learned last week that I am not, it turns out, the Wicked Witch of the West. I can get wet without melting. And so Ian and I put on boots and rain jackets today and drove the dogs up to Carkeek Park, which has a lovely, steep woods criss-crossed with trails and few dogs (and those we encountered just went right on by while Hoover made a fool of himself. And, I suppose, us.). Spackle is much more lively in the woods, as I believe pounding the pavement is hard on his hips. And Hoover can roam a little on his expando leash. Ian and I plan to continue taking advantage of Seattle’s excellent outlying parks, for our own good too.

And, I was given a good opportunity to examine my rose-tinted future plans for home and farm on Orcas. Do I really want horses of my own, let alone other livestock? There are seasons on Orcas as well as on Jerome Creek.  Am I interested enough in horses that I want to ride them several days a week to keep them fit and healthy? There’s a lot more involved in getting a horse ready to go than leashing up a dog. Even two dogs. And/or do the work to get the horses back in shape every summer if I give them a few months off? Further, do I really think there will be a time when I will no longer be interested in weeks’-long overseas travel? And that I would be young enough when I’m done with travel to still reasonably own horses? If there’s anything I’ve been learning about myself lately, it’s that I am not currently interested in doing one thing all the time. Dogs are relatively portable, and compared to horses, relatively cheap (well, Hoover so far is).

Lastly, sun is important to me, which I knew, but it’s become important enough that I now know I will need access to it regularly throughout the year, not just 6 weeks of Seattle’s glorious summer. I may not always choose Las Vegas as a retreat, but I’m looking forward to being completely anonymous poolside for a couple days. And completely warm.

So, thank you K&A, you have again done me a huge favor in letting me be the supervisor of your peerless domain.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Last Wintry Jerome Creek Pics Posted

I posted the remainder of the slightly more interesting pictures of my Jerome Creek stay, with captions. The last six pics are a series, taken almost every day that I was there.  Hoo boy golly am I looking forward to that sun in 10 days.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Vegas, Baby!

I have decided to take my need for sun into my own hands, and yesterday I booked an Alaska Airlines Vacation package to Las Vegas. I’m going to be staying for 3 nights at the Mandalay Bay Resort, which has 9 (NINE!) pools, including a wave pool, a water park, and, as Ian pointed out when I told him of my plans, a million-gallon shark tank full of interesting Selachimorpha. But, as he said, it’s MY trip, not his, so I only have to go look at the sharks if I want to.  One interesting things about having been married for more than 10 years is that I’m planning to go have a look at the sharks simply because I can’t tell anymore if I would like it, or if Ian’s likes are now so deeply embedded that I can no longer tell the difference between his and mine in some cases. Anyway, it looks like the weather will be in the upper 70s (hot for a Northwesterner steeped for months in 42-degree rain, with cubes of blistering cold thrown in for spice), and I will have no one and nothing to distract me from full hedonistic egotism.

There will be no bills to pay, or taxes to figure out, or endless tidying to do. I won’t have to cook or clean up after myself. There will be no dogs to walk, or hike with, or have to manage in any way. No muddy footprints--after THOUSANDS OF THEM. There will not even be an Ian, although considering how little time we’ve spent together in the last couple months (me in China and him in Mexico, then him in Hawaii, then me here in Idaho, then, now, me heading off to Vegas), I’m not sure I remember any longer just how much, and what type, of management my relationship with him takes.  But I’m sure it’s something, and I’m equally sure that 2 ½ days to be warm and completely self-indulgent will go far toward recharging my dangerously taxed internal reserves.

And then I can go back home, refreshed, and let Ian and the dogs indulge me more.