Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Snug Harbor

Housesitting nirvana.
Yesterday morning, a storm with a severe wind advisory descended on Washington. Winds made the windows shriek. We jumped from bed. Time to feed the dog, pack, and clean the house. Our two-week Seaview, Washington house sit was over. The owners were returning in a few hours.

Our next house sit, in Seattle, wouldn't start for a few days. We planned to drive up the Olympic Peninsula, exploring beaches, trails, little towns. But no way, not with this storm. We'd hunker down for a few days, probably at a hotel or BnB in nearby Astoria.

Cape Disappointment State Park...not a disappointing nearby hike.
I stuffed the sheets in the washing machine and cleaned up the kitchen while Dave vacuumed every nook and cranny of the sweet Victorian. It's fun to know homeowners will return to a super clean house, the animals fed and happy. Bill and Sherry--a doctor and a nurse--had been in Nigeria on a medical mission. They'd worked long days in 100-plus heat. They were likely to appreciate a comfortable return.

The good news was that we hadn't burned down the house. One afternoon, a neighbor had alerted us to weird, white smoke shooting out of the chimney. A chimney fire. For a few tense hours we monitored it. Fortunately, it self-extinguished without the help of the fire department, whom we had on speed dial. By email, Bill had been apologetic. I said don't worry about it. There were other sources of heat. And we loved being here.

Willapa National Refuge
Why? Let me count the ways. Near the beach. Incredible nature hikes. A great bakery (not to be understated after more than a year in S.E. Asia, where we craved American baked goods). Amazing seafood. There's a little cannery a few blocks away where we bought a case of smoked tuna, infused with pepper and lemon.

Seriously delicious fish-and-chips, tuna melt, fish tacos.
During our stay, I got together with an old high school buddy who lives nearby. And my friend Anne (who lives in Portland) visited for a couple of days. I always like to ask the owners if they are okay with visitors, and they usually are. In fact, Bill had been quite enthusiastic about it, saying he hoped we'd enjoy the area.

With poet/artist Anne Paris Jennings. It had been 9 years!

And now it was time to go. While Dave packed the car, I took Freckles for a walk to the nearby beach. The wind was whipping but the sky was blue. Rain wouldn't roll in for an hour or two.

pure love
Ah, Freckles. Rescued from a puppy mill and so full of love. Our last walk. There are lots of firsts and lasts in nomadic life. Everything changes, and nomads don't suffer the illusion of stasis.

The waves were massive. This storm meant business. We didn't know where we'd be spending the night. And our Subaru had developed a bit of a leak in the back, not a big problem unless you were driving through a downpour with your car packed.

You can drive on the beaches here.
I ached a little for the cozy sweetness of the house. And a small part of me was excited, as always, about the unknown of the "next thing."

Bill and Sherry arrived on time. Freckles and Robbie were happy to see them, which always makes leaving the animals easier.

Robbie, a Scottish fold
As we talked, they told us they've been to more than 90 countries! So often the people we housesit for are part of our traveling tribe. When they asked where we were headed next, we explained how the storm had put a kink in our plans.

"Well, why don't you stay here a few more days?" They said. In unison! They didn't need to consult in private. They spontaneously, simultaneously offered up their generosity. Turned out, they had come only to pick up the animals then head back to their main residence, a few hours north.

Dave and I looked at each other. He held the car key in his hand. Our packed Subaru was snug in the dry garage.


"Sure," they said. "Stay as long as you want. We won't be back here until the end of next week."

A run to the grocery store later, we pulled our stuff out of the car and reinstalled it in the house. That was a first. So here we are for a few more days while the storm blows through, snug in the generosity of people who quickly transform from strangers into friends.

Willapa National Refuge

Friday, November 10, 2017

Time Travel

Seaview, Washington

Back in the U.S. after more than a year, it's like we've stepped off a time machine. The more we live this nomadic life, the more all travel feels like time travel. Life doesn't feel linear; it's like something I'm swimming in, a dreamy substance that infuses me.

When we left China, we traveled in Thailand and Indonesia for three months. Was that yesterday? Last year? Ten years ago? Or is it still happening?

time and space blend...
When I look at Dave's pictures and write about the oraguntans and komodo dragons, the Gili islands and Amed,  Anais Nin's words come to me:

Writers taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

Visceral recollections sweep through me: My arms wrapped around Dave on a motorbike, up hills with blue sea vistas, gliding past palm trees, winding through traffic.

My job is to hold on and loosen up. Alert relaxation, like a meditation. At times I close my eyes, feel the tropical air touching my skin, my heart pressed to Dave's back.

Phuket, Thailand
In Ubud, I walk morning streets, incense and flowers perfuming the air, dogs sniffing at offerings placed on the streets, kites and birds floating in the sky, swaths of green rice fields glowing in the sun, ancient temples wedged between stores.

Stairs to yoga.
Intuitive Flow...like doing yoga in a tree house.

There are so many incredible women everywhere: in yoga, in a goddess workshop, in cafes. We talk: Not what do you do? But who are you, what matters to you, what is your life? I'm giddy. I'm in awe. How is it that we collided here on the planet at this place and time?

Marilyn, in her 70s, has lived in Ubud many years with her Balinese "family."

Coco Wayan...we greet each other every day, and I buy coconuts from her.
Eliska and Christie, getting in touch with our inner goddesses.

The young women at the hotel in Flores call me "Mama Kate."
Embraced by friendship: Nancy (center) and Cynthia who met up with us at the writing retreat.
Music plays in my mind, the vibration that runs through the body, the heart, as our friends Paul (from Liverpool) and Daria (from Russia) play. They have come from China to meet up with us in Nusa Dua, Bali. We are together again, connected through rhythms and voices...

Throughout Indonesia, we experience music, dance, bodies telling stories.

Uluwatu, Bali
Ubud Jazz Festival

Jimbaran, Bali

Two months in Indonesia and we're off to Thailand. Did I really co-host a writing retreat on the island of Koh Phangan? Something I'd dreamed about doing for long time...and after all the months of planning and prepping and there we were, writers together, having journeyed on airplanes, trains, boats to converge in this rarefied little corner of the world.

Although I risk cliche, I will say it: we laughed, we cried, we wrote our hearts out.

Writers at work... 

...and play.

And all the water, the water...my body floats there now.
Flores, Indonesia with Fran and Paul

Koh Phangan, Thailand writers

Nai Harn Beach in Phuket, where we spent our last 2 weeks.

Leaving Southeast Asia after more than a year, we travel for 24 hours and land in the dream of Hawaii. When we arrive at the waterfront home of our friend Candis, we throw off our clothes and jump naked into the warm Pacific.

We're on the other side of the world. And again we're in the ocean, in our most natural state, afloat in the Earth's amniotic fluid.

Lanikai, Oahu

Everywhere go, it seems, I am sent messages.

Found in Thailand

Found in Ubud.
Life, I am listening.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Indonesia Part 2: Orangutans and Komodo Dragons

soulful eyes in Borneo (all photos by Dave Rhine)
In our 7 years together, Dave has turned me on to the allure of the wild animal encounter.

Sea turtles, kangaroos,  platypuses, an echidna, mongooses, water buffalo, jackals, monkeys, wild horses, elephants, peacocks, monitor lizards, macaques, crocodiles...and an amazing 40 minutes with a leopard, just to name a few.

When we decided to travel to Indonesia, he said we must see:

a) orangutans and
b) komodo dragons

Komodo dragons? I'd never heard of them. And I hadn't known that one of the last places in the wild orangutans live is Borneo.

I also soon learned that Borneo--the third largest island in the world--is divided into four regions: Kalimantan (part of Indonesia), Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia) and Brunei (an independent sultanate).

Our trip took us from Amed, Bali to Kalimantan by way of Jakarta, where we met up with our friends Paul and Fran, who'd taught with me in China.

with Paul and Fran on the klotok
From Jakarta, we flew to Kalimantan, where we were taken to a dock to board a klotok that would be our home on the river for the next three days. We spent hours drifting down the river, watching the humid jungle float by, enjoying the boat-produced breeze.

At times the captain slowed for us to watch creatures in the trees. Especially fascinating were the proboscis monkeys with their Jimmy Durante noses.

There isn't much human population, but we saw a few homes on stilts whose inhabitants fish for a living.
We hung out on the top of the boat, while the cook crouched in the tiny, low-ceilinged kitchen below, preparing meals. It was incredible that such an array of good food poured out of the cramped space.

We spent one night on the boat shrouded in mosquito nets. What I'd imagined would be a romantic night cocooned in jungle sounds turned out to be virtually sleepless. The bedding was uncomfortable, and the hot, humid night was stifling. Although I am someone who generally doesn't equate comfort with happiness, I was thrilled that the next night we'd sleep in a hotel bed with A/C and warm showers.

Well...the hotel had no hot water. (And that was the start of almost two weeks without a warm shower, which will be explained in the next blog.) And no A/C. But a fan kept the air tolerably circulating, and the bed was big and comfy. I admit it; there is part of me that's a spoiled softie.

Yet it was all worth it. Any unease was abated when each day we hiked into the forest and came eye-to-eye with these amazing creatures:

According to our guide, this was a 7-year-old female, recently independent from her mother. I wondered if she was as delighted in us as we were in her? Curiosity and fascination surged through me. I hope it was mutual.

Our treks took us to orangutan feeding stations.
In spite of this warning, the young, male Indonesian guides bathed in the river.
At the stations, the workers dump out passels of small bananas. Soon, orangutans come swinging from the trees to drop down to the platforms. The big ones eat what must have been close to a hundred in steady succession. Afterward, a worker sweeps the peels off the platform for a patiently waiting warthog to dive in.

The mothers smashed a bunch of banana in their mouths and then pulled out the wad to feed the babies.

On our last day, at the final platform, we waited and waited after the banana distribution, wondering if the orangutans would ever show up. Then, suddenly, high in the trees: movement. There! And there! And there! Dozens of these red-furred humanesque creatures scurried over on the treetops, more than we'd seen in one place. A few large females dropped to the platforms, while tangles of children played high in the trees. Some plunged in death-defying drops from limb to limb. It was like we were watching play-date for the kids while the moms went "shopping." It was incredible to be able to view this community in action.

Fast forward a couple of weeks...and we were ready for our next wild animal adventure. From Flores, we took a day trip to Komodo National Park on Rinca (pronounced Rin-cha) island.
Kalimantan in the north: orangutans. Rinca in the south: komodo dragons.
The 90-minute ride was peaceful and spectacularly blue.

The little I learned about komodo dragons in advance of the trip included that they can grow up to almost nine feet long, they can move quickly, and their prey doesn't die from their vicious bites but from the komodo gift of deadly bacteria. Needless to say, it made me a little nervous when I saw that our guide was not carrying a gun or a machete...but a forked stick. I was skeptical that a nudge could keep these creatures at bay.

The stick is long...but how fast is the guide?
I did what I used to do when flying made me nervous: watch the guides (flight attendants) who do this kind of thing every day, and note that there are dozens of other people (passengers) going along nonchalantly for the ride.
Time for a manicure?
Our first glimpse of these dragon-y creatures occurred at the ranger station, where they casually hang out. A taxi driver (prompted by Paul) had told us a Halloween-like story about a ranger, who neglected to shut the door, being attacked in his office. When we passed the station and walked along a forested path, my skin crawled. Terror laced with thrill. It wasn't a horrible feeling.

Our guide pointed out a mound of dirt, a komodo egg nest. As he spoke, I saw a bit of dirt fly out of the nest. "I think there's one in there!" I said. Startled, everyone turned to look. Sure enough, a large female lifted her head out and eyed us. My heart skidded. Then she opened her mouth and hissed...a moment Dave, steady as always, caught on camera.

He also snapped this incredible shot of a swarm of bees we'd walked right past. Komodo National Park ain't no Disneyland. And for that, it's pretty amazing.

On the boat back, I thought how how, like the U.S.'s national parks, many people are involved in protecting these parts of the world. I'm grateful to them all.

leaving Komodo National Park

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Indonesia Part 1: Gili Islands and Amed

Cooling off the horse in Gili Trawangan
Flying out of Nanning, China--where we'd lived for a year--was familiar since we'd traveled a lot during my breaks at the university. Yet it was surreal, knowing we weren't returning. At least not in the near future. Our first stop (after an overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur) was the magical Gili islands. Let me cut to the chase: Of all the places I've traveled, this is one I want to return to one day.

Because there are no motor vehicles, on the three Gilis (Trawangan, Air and Meno) you get around on foot, bike, and small horse-drawn carriages.

We spent half a day riding bikes around the whole island, stopping at will for swimming and food.
On Gili T, we woke each morning to the haunting call to prayer blasting on a loudspeaker and fell asleep each night to the heartbeat of distant party music. This compelling juxtaposition of religious devotion and secular indulgence was evident throughout Indonesia.
Shrooms are as available as fresh fish.
One morning at breakfast in our comfy family-owned B&B, I heard a young couple speaking English with American accents. Most travelers we'd encountered in the past year in S.E. Asia were Europeans, Indians, and Australians. And of course in China, we met few Americans. I couldn't help myself. I had to ask them where they were from. Chicagoites, Danielle and Evan were on their honeymoon.

Danielle and me
The four of us spent the day on a boat that took us to three snorkel spots. In most places in S.E. Asia it's almost the same price (and much more comfortable) to hire your own boat than to take one with lots of other tourists.

Snorkeling, we saw lots of healthy, multicolored coral and fish--and best of all, turtles. One day Dave and I snorkeled off the beach on Gili T and were instantly surrounded by five or six large turtles. It's sublime floating in warm, quiet water with these prehistoric creatures.

That day, we had lunch on Gili Air, which is known for being quieter than Gili T. (In the Sasak language, "air" means "water" and "gili" means island.) I loved Gili Air's maze-like streets.

As in many places throughout S.E. Asia, on Gili T there was a lively night market with foods that looked (and were) delicious--and a few that frankly frightened me. Those were mostly along the line of insects. Another similarity to many places we'd been, including China, was the adorable babies.

We had made our plan to spend two months in Indonesia before we'd discovered that Americans are granted one-month visas upon entering the country. We asked around about extending our visas and were told to see the "guy with the mustache" at a travel booth on the main, dusty road. Dealing with bureaucracy everywhere is a challenge--and even more so in a place where the rules seem, well...flexible, and you don't know the language or the culture. Handing over cash and your passport to "the guy with the mustache" is a pure act of faith.

the ferry
To finalize the visa extensions, we took a crammed ferry (more like a fishing boat) to Lombok's passport and immigration office. We'd been told the ferry would leave "about" 9 a.m. It finally took off at 10:30. Hanging out on a beach with a coconut isn't the worst way to wait for a ride.

To get to the Gilis, we took a boat from Sanur (south of Padangbai).
We had vague instructions about how to meet up with the guy who would drive us from the pier to a an inland city. We'd thought we'd already paid for the transport, but the driver insisted we hadn't...so maybe we got bilked a few bucks. I re-reminded myself that a few dollars is not a big deal for us but probably is for him.

The rest of the visa-procuring experience went relatively smoothly. And our driver showed us around a little, including taking us to see this pretty mosque:

and monkeys in the mountains.

monkey junk
We could have easily spent another week or two on the Gilis. But it was time to move on. Our morning fast-boat ride out to the Gilis had been extremely rough, with waves crashing over the boat. That happens periodically. It's the government, not the boat owners, who decide when the seas become too unsafe--and after our ride over, the boats had been cancelled for a few days. (We were incredibly lucky to not have to deal with delays or cancellations of boats, planes or buses during our three months of post-China travel...which included 16 flights.)

Our ride from the Gilis to Amed--the easternmost point of Bali--was bumpy but not as rough as the ride out. Disembarking from the boat meant stepping from a wobbly boat onto an even wobblier, floating, slippery "pier" with no handrails that was being buffeted by large waves. Our S.E. Asia mantra: There is no OSHA here.

Blue Star Bungalows...right on the beach.
We stayed a week at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed on Jemeluk Beach. Iluh, the owner, told me I could remember her name with the acronym, "I Love You, Honey."

And I did--love her, her small hotel, and Amed. Iluh told us that tourism didn't come to Amed until relatively recently. When her husband was growing up there, everyone was poor. No one had electricity and most kids didn't go to school. Things were changing but still, children wandered the beaches, trying to sell bracelets and other small items to tourists. Iluh suggested we buy only from adults and give kids school supplies instead. So we bought colorful pens for the children.

The kids try to hook you with the few words of English they know, starting with, "Hi, what's your name?" One girl, probably around eight years old, came by day after day as I sat on the beach. One day when she asked me my name, I pouted and said, "Really? You don't remember?" She smiled. I invited her to sit with me. She pulled out a little notebook and asked me to write down my name. We spent half an hour together in an impromptu English lesson, writing new words accompanied by pictures, her little hand perched on my thigh. I have been teaching for many years, and this was one of my favorite teaching moments of all time.

Jemeluk Bay
It's incredible to be able to walk right out into the water on Blue Star's beach and experience world-class snorkeling. Evenings, we ambled into the little town for dinner. We shared a few meals with a wonderful German couple we met. He's a filmmaker, she runs an NGO that promotes equality for women in developing nations.

nueu freunde
Meeting new people is one of the greatest pleasures of traveling. It's also sweet to travel with longtime friends...which is what we did when we left Amed to see more of Indonesia. I write about that next...stay tuned!