Friday, June 25, 2010

Patrol Night 2 or I Have Turtle Blood on My Hands

June 22, 2010

Tonight I am on the beach writing by the gibbous moonlight. The Atlantic is beating a persistent time, the stars sparkle, the fireflies twinkle, the palm trees are silhouetted against the midnight blue sky, and the sand looks like gray moon dust in the moonlight. The breeze from off the water is blowing on my face as we sit on a washed up log in the center of our zone, the lights from the oil rigs glow ever so faintly on the horizon. I am at peace. There is a spaciousness here that reminds me how incomprehensibly massive the universe is, how I am only a tiny but precious part of it, just like the turtles.

When you see one coming out of the surf, her black shell glistening like an enormous black beetle, like some otherworldly dinosaur, like a phantom of the ocean, it is ghostly, surreal, haunting. We are still waiting for our first of the night.

I mentioned body pitting earlier but I will explain this ritual in more detail. After she heaves herself onto shore, pulling her massive body with her front flippers, pushing with her rear flippers, and finds "the spot" in the softer sand above the high water line, she begins the pit. She uses her front flippers like wings and makes, well, a snow angel, but in the sand, and in the shape of a turtle - a turtle angel I suppose. She does this to build up sand along her sides, creating a pit to balance herself over the egg chamber she will soon dig. She uses the build up of sand to anchor herself over the egg chamber by her front flippers. Brilliant.

I am hoping for a quiet night where I can just sit with one turtle from start to finish, no lights, no tagging, no data recording. Just sit with her and watch her in wonder. The data gathering is certainly interesting, and I am concerned with accuracy, but when you are so focused on the data, you are not focused on the wonder. It reminds me of the William Wordsworth poem, The Tables Turned.


UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet, 10
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness. 20

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves; 30
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

"Sweet is the lore which nature brings/our meddling intellect/mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things/we murder to dissect." How perfectly these lines capture the process of intellectual deconstruction. Certainly we gain an understanding of one sort by studying, measuring, solving, but we miss another kind of understanding all together, the one that involves just being, the one that involves the Limitlessness of life.

I want to just be with a turtle. But tonight is not my night. I have done my first PIT tagging. When our first turtle finally arrived, we prepared our equipment, waited. She took a long time to dig. Stephan joked, "Can you tell her to come on?" "Typical man," I said, "you can't rush these things. Perfection takes time." We can only tag her when she is laying. This is because she is in a trance of sorts, concentrating so hard on the laying that you really cannot spook her. I loaded the tag gun with the needle, knelt in front of her, massaged the meaty shoulder with my thumb, and pushed the needle in. Her shoulder was thick; I pushed the trigger forward, inserting the tag, and pulled the gun out, leaving my finger over the wound. That's when I felt it, blood. Oh God! Did I do it wrong? She's bleeding! Did I hurt her? No, not really. I forgot to put my thumb right on the spot before I withdrew the needle. A minor error in technique, but it did not hurt her. But now I have turtle blood on my hands, quite literally.

All of the tagging and measuring and GPSing and scanning and examinining means that you are lying, kneeling, sitting, leaning, balancing, hovering, etc. in sand. Sand sand sand. I have sand everywhere. Under my finger nails, in my nose (I got a flipper full in my face), in my ears, behind my ears, in my hair, in my belly button. I have sand in every crevice. I have sand in crevices I didn't know I had. And yes, I have sand in that crevice too, front and back. Yay.

Day 4 or It Ain't Easy Being Green

June 22, 2010

Today we spent the morning and afternoon, between naps and meals, in training. Nature Seekers figured that what we are doing would make more sense after we have seen it in action on the beach one night, and they are right.

So here's the scoop on Nature Seekers: The group was started by a local woman named Suzan Lakhan Baptiste, also known as "the Crazy Turtle Lady," (last year she won a CNN Hero Award for her work). She realized the importance of the turtles, she realized they were endangered. In the 1970's and 1980's 30% of turtles were killed for meat, shells, and well, hey, why not? The hatchlings were used for bait by fishermen, eggs were poached, the necks of the adults were hacked to allow the blood to run in the surf and attract sharks to the beach for shark fishermen. Hawksbill and Green turtles (two other species that also nest here, but are even more rare than the leatherbacks) were killed for their hard shells to make jewelry (today it is illegal to transport turtle jewelry out of the country). Even today there is still an open season on Leatherbacks (Nature Seekers is trying to get the newly elected government to reverse this - there is a Facebook campaign: Trinidad & Tobago Leatherback Project). But the biggest threat is bycatch. NS estimates that 1,000 turtles per year are caught in fishing nets, and they are working to test other fishing methods and convince local fishermen that these other methods are kinder to the turtles and are actually more efficient at catching the intended fish. It is an uphill battle to change attitudes. Occasionally a baby will be a snack for crabs or hawks. They don't fuss about that too much - Circle of Life and all.

So Nature Seekers is unusual in that it is an organization of locals protecting their own wildlife. The guides are locals, the research is conducted and compiled by locals, the tourism is conducted by the locals. They are trying to build a model for local conservation that can be copied elsewhere in the world. An admirable goal. This model is different than the model that requires an outsider to come in and steamroll the local population's needs in various conservation efforts.

It's not easy being a turtle in the ocean. But the research has given them a good idea where the turtles are going. Many of them ride the ocean currents up to Nova Scotia. One was found in New York, one in North Carolina, one in Florida. And yet they return, for the most part, to the same beaches every 2-3 years to nest. Although there are exceptions. Trinidad turtles have nested in Tobago and Costa Rica, which has given rise to the local expression: "Don't put all your eggs on one beach."

As an alternative to the turtle shell jewelry, the local male guides are experimenting with turning the glass bottles collected on the beach into glass beads to make jewelry and sell. And after they work nights patrolling the beach, the men head out with machetes into the jungle during the day to help with a reforestation project. They are replanting local vegetation and fruit trees in the hopes that wildlife will return (the monkeys are almost gone).

The second part of the lecture, Ronald, one of the spunkier guides, talked to us again about how to approach working our beach zones. We learned how to prioritize turtles - returning nesters versus new nesters (tag the new turtles first), how to prioritze timing (a turtle who is just coming ashore may have another 40 minutes before she starts laying, so you have time to patrol the shore looking for others. We learned how to use our GPS to get the precise coordinates of the egg chamber, how to measure properly, how to record all the data: everything from the weather, the time, date, the turtle's activities, the flipper damage, parasites on the turtle, injuries, identifying abnormalities, etc. My head was spinning, but the task for me is nothing compared to what these turtles go through, or the hatchlings for that matter. These animals are very, very determined to continue their species, and I will do what I need to to help them.

Go check out Send them money if you have some to spare!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Night 1 or I Am Not a Turtle Virgin

June 21, 2010 - first night on the beach

Tonight we piled into the paddywagon at seven with all of our gear: long shirts, long pants, hiking shoes, head lamps, mosquito repellant, water, rain gear, etc...

The twenty minute ride through the jungle to the beach is different in the dark, when unfamiliar sounds from frogs and other night dwellers fill the air.

When we arrived at the base shelter on the beach, Ronald, our guide and trainer for the evening, showed us the tagging instruments. The first and most critical is the PIT tag, which gets injected into the turtle's meaty shoulder like a pet microchip. The PIT tags allow the researchers to see if a turtle is returning to the same beach every 2-3 years when she nests. One of ours has ended up in Florida before.

The other kind of tag is the flipper tags. These are a little mean looking, and I cringed at the thought of putting them on the sweet giants. They are metal tags which bite into the fleshy area between the tail and the back flipper when you clamp them with a rather medieval looking metal clamp. It's like a livestock tag in the ear. It pierces the flesh and contains an ID number and the address of Nature Seekers here in Trinidad. It's like tagging the webbed skin between your fingers. OUCH! But they do provide information. Three of our turtles ended up in fishing nets in the Mediterranean. The fishermen had the presence of mind to report it and let at least one of them go. It took a year for the information to get back to Nature Seekers and when they finally got the information on the sighting, the same turtle was back on Matura Beach nesting that year.

We can only tag her when she is actually laying the eggs, not during any other part of her elaborate nesting ritual. And in addition to the tags, we are outfitted with scanners (for scanning for earlier PIT tags), GPS, measuring tape for measuring the carapace (shell), record sheets and pencils.

All during the 45 minute talk, my anticipation was mounting. We were all chomping to get on the beach, behold our first turtle. Finally we turned down the sandy path to the shoreline, turning our head lamps off. The night air was still and dense, and there was no relieving breeze on the beach either. We turned parallel to the shore and began our patrol and there she was! A huge, primeval, ancient dinosaur, an enormous black mound in the sand. A thrill of child wonder ran through me. She was already deep into her ritual.

She uses her front flippers to do what is called "body pitting." She clears away the surface sand and sinks her belly further into the sand below, feeling for temperature (cooler temperatures mean more male hatchlings, warmer sand yields more female hatchlings). She is deciding if she likes the spot she's chosen. If she doesn't, she'll move around until she finds one more to her liking. If that does not work, she'll heave herself a few yards away and try again. If nothing at all is to her liking, she'll abandon and return to the sea without laying, hopefully to try again later.

But this one liked her spot enough to start digging. The is an astonishingly choreographed dance which she cannot see at all, because it is all done with her back flippers. First she balances her body by anchoring her front flippers deep in the sand. Using one massive flipper at a time, say, her left, she shovels out a scoop of sand by curling her flipper in on itself, then she lifts the left flipper out of the hole and traps the sand on the bank above the hole. Then she scoops with the right flipper. Then, before she can scoop again with her left, she flings the sand she trapped from the last scoop out of the nest altogether. You do not want to be in the line of fire when she is doing this, because you will be wearing, eating and seeing sand.

I moved from her rear to her head, watching her in amazement, marvelling at the tremendous effort this mother was giving. You can see, feel the the exhaustion. To come out of the sea, where your entire body weight is supported by salt water, to heave your giant body onto the beach, heave it up the shore, shovel sand to find a suitable spot, dig a hole 3.5 feet deep entirely with your back feet (imagine digging a perfect hole you cannot see entirely with your feet!), lay 75-100 eggs, cover the nest, camouflage it, and return to the sea. A process which can take up to two hours. You cannot help but be in awe of this act of determined creation.

She let out a gasp, exhaling and then drawing in another breath. I gasped with her. Thick, mucousy salt tears ran from the eyes of this sacred mother. I sat in front of her on my knees, encouraging her (more for me than for her). I cried to meet her. How beautiful, powerful is the spirit of nature.

When she began laying her clutch I volunteered to be the first to flipper tag her. I moved into a comfortable position behind her. Ronald held her flipper for me so I could find the right fleshy spot, I positioned the clamp, squeezed my eyes shut, apologized to her, and sqeezed the clamp with all my might (you don't want to be timid, timid squeezing means that the tag won't bite all the way through the flesh and clasp shut, and you'll end up hurting the turtle more, perhaps wounding her, causing an infection). When I opened my eyes, Ronald pronounced my tagging to be very good. A huge relief.

Throughout the course of the night, we tagged two more new turtles, and recorded two returns.

And then, we rescued four babies! Ronald found one on his (or her - you can't tell) back. We revived him and sent him on his way to the sea, where, if he is a he, he will never again return to shore, and if he is a she, she will return if she lives to 25 or 30, and is old enough to start nesting. Then we found three more stragglers who didn't make it out of the nest. Sometimes, if they are unlucky enough to be from eggs that are on the bottom of the clutch, and after 70 of your brothers and sisters have stood on your head to get out of the nest, you don't have much of a shot, you are, in effect, a snack for something else in the circle of life. The guide pulled the three from the nest, and we carried them to the shore where they did not show much life. One wiggled a little, and started to wobble toward the surf, but the other two did not revive enough to crawl home. We had to leave them and move on, hoping that with enough rest they might live. A heartbreak and a hope carrying me home that night.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 3 or Proud Mama

June 21, 2010

Last night at the airport, waiting for the rendezvous of Earthwatch volunteers, I made one last ditch effort to recover my rain jacket. I thought if I could just find some American Airlines people to talk to, maybe they would have a lost and found or something. But when airline workers don't want to be found, I think they disappear in to some kind of cosmic worm hole. So no more rain jacket.

We assembled slowly. Me, sharp as a tac Alice and her cherubic 16 year old granddaughter, 18 year old Sims who wants to study marine biology in college and is here for a graduation gift, Mary from England, and then a contingent of Europeans from the European Environment Agency (basically the European Equivalent of our EPA, only a lot smaller). Their director is sending them all on this trip for biodiversity training. So there is Linda, a Brit, Gerard and Josienne, French, Stephan, the German, Cigdem (pronounced CHEE-dum) from Turkey, Anita from Slovenia and Tarja from Finland, or as she says, "Feeenlund." We introduced ourselves and stood around awkwardly until our driver came and hauled us out to Matura, the village we are staying in for the research project. As we loaded ourselves and our luggage onto the minibus, the air was thick with a sense of adventure and anticipation. Linda and I sat next to each other and quickly discovered we were kindred spirits on the Cosmic Consciousness front, and that conversation kept us busy until we pulled in front of our guest house an hour later.

We were greeted with room temperature butter and garlic sandwiches (things that make you go "hmmm....") and some juice, and then packed off to bed. But not before the roomate haggling was settled. Immediately a persnickety few were angling for a different room assignment, but the very big upshot is that I got to room with Linda, my cool new Brit friend who hails from the town that made Newcastle Brown Ale. She has scored mega cool points because of the brew alone, not to mention the fact that we shared similar backgrounds and beliefs when it came to men, the Buddha, and living as a single woman.

It is critical to mention that there is no airconditioning in our guest house except for window airconditioners in the bedrooms, which is itself a massive relief, but means you often retreat to your bedroom in self defense from melting. To wake up is to start sweating. To step out of the shower is to start sweating. Yes, I know this is the tropics, but damn it is fucking hot. I'm not sure fucking hot even really covers it. Muggy, soggy, sticky, clammy, butt-crack moist, all might be understatements when it comes to the Caribbean during rainy season. It rained all last night again, and while I loved listening to the sound of it during the night, it left behind a steam bath of a morning. Imagine if you were a fly stuck between two hairy, sweaty donkey balls and you could not escape. That is about how hot and sticky it is here.

But there is not much time to be miserable here. Shortly after an...interesting... breakfast of salt fish (which is really salt with a little fish thrown in), curried green beans and some spinach schmoo, we had orientation. Dennis, the director of Nature Seekers came over from the headquarters (right next door) to welcome us and familiarize us with the basics: "ask for what you need, we are here to help you, we have lots of turtles, etc."

Next up was the beach orientation. We needed to see where we'd be working at night on the turtle patrols. So we all piled into the back of the truck (which looks like a paddy wagon with us all being hauled off to someplace unpleasant).

The drive to the beach is a bumpy 20 minutes over puddles and dirt and gravel roads, past the hodge podge houses of locals, mongrels and their pups running in the streets. Then the village houses dropped away and we reach the jungle's edge. Hoping down from the truck bed we headed eagerly in the direction of the shoreline.

Um, remember the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks? Yeah, that's where I am working. The isolation of this beach (it is restricted because of the turtles), the Atlantic ocean crashing on the shore, the line of palm trees and sea grapes inland, the bird of paradise flowers growing wild, the fallen coconuts littering the ground, the bits of lonely driftwood stranded on the shore drying in the sun, all meld into tropical perfection. Straight out of a Hollywood movie. I am a lucky bastard.

And then it happened, my first turtle. Just moments after we hit the beach, Sims spotted a baby turtle in the sand, lying on his back. At first glance I was prepared for tragedy; he did not look alive. But our guide, Richard, touched him and he moved a flipper! The little guy was still hanging on! Richard instructed us to get him wet in the ocean to cool him off a little, and to carry him with us during our tour of the beach, stroking him along the back of his cute little shell the whole way.

So we took turns carrying him, petting him, falling in love with him. Sims named him Ulysses. He was no more than four inches long, with a flipper span of four inches. His soft shell was soft black leather, his flippers mottled with white spots, his little head the cutest baby turtle head I have ever seen. (OK, this is the only baby turtle head I've see). People, baby turtles are fucking adorable.

With Ulysses in hand, we started our walk of the 8km beach, noting the different zones that have been set up for patrols, noting the beach erosion from the rain, noting the bites we were getting all over everywhere from some kind of sand fly, or sand flea, or sand fuckers more like.

I wish I could say the beach was pristine, but heartbreakingly, it is not. The trash and litter from oceans away, from cruise ships, from other countries, from the great swirl of trash in the Atlantic washes up on Matura Beach daily.

And from Trinidad itself, heavy rains flush the rivers of plastic bottles, glass bottles, plastic bags, pen caps, cigarette lighters, make up jars, fishing line, fishing nets, styrofoam, candy wrappers, unidentifiable bits of crap that does not belong in nature. My heart sank when I saw the piles of it, washed up on shore and regurgitated by the sea, as if to say, "I don't want this in me, you take it back."

Every February, before nesting season, the Matura community comes to the beach and cleans it, removes the trash and natural debris, anything that can get in the way of the turtles coming to nest. But as soon as it is clear, the trash starts coming in again, and it is more than the small staff at Nature Seekers can keep up with. It is beyond frustrating. All one can do is hope that one day we will all realize that what we do in one part of the world affects another. Does the person on that cruise ship who threw his coke bottle into the sea realize it may wash ashore in Trinidad and pollute the beaches that a critically endangered sea turtle comes to nest? Do I realize that everytime I buy a bottle of water, I create a new piece of trash? When we don't see the affects of our actions on a daily basis, we are not careful, caring, contientious. We must, for our own sakes, we must change. I am vowing to do my best never to buy another plastic bottle again, even if I recycle it.

When we had returned to the entrance to the beach, it was time to put Ulysses in the sand and send him off to join the real world. We put him down facing the ocean.

We watched him wander around a little at first, turn the wrong direction. We cheered him on and encouraged him to right his course toward the sea. He did, and his little flippers worked to carrying him home to water, to his life where he has a one in one thousand chance of survival.

I have to say, sending a baby sea turtle off to the ocean is a bit like sending your first born off to kindergarten. You stand there with pride watching him or her (Ulysses could be a girl) and you call out, "Bye cutie, have a gread day, don't get eaten!" I feel like a proud mama.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 2 or Port of Spain in Two Hours or Less

I thought it would be so amazing to wake up to the sound of tropical birds chirping. Instead, this morning somewhere around 4:00am, I woke to the feeling of my laxative kicking in. "It's showtime," I muttered as I rolled out of my reasonably fluffy bed and padded to the bathroom. When the fireworks ended I crawled back in bed and about an hour later is when the tropical birds started. But the one right smack outside my widow was louder and more annoying than a French rooster at the crack of ass dawn. Hello ear plugs. But eventually that guy shut up and I could extract the pink foam in my ear canals and enjoy the more sedate chirping of the other birds all around. It's like living in an aviary down here.

Shortly after my nondescript breakfast the rain started. It's funny, but in Trinidad, "it's raining" has a whole new meaning. Good thing I have a brand new rain jacket for my planned walk through downtown Port of Spain today, or do I? Flashback to last night on the plane, picture myself napping on said rain jacket as a pillow, remember myself leaving it on the plane. Shit and double shit. I found myself turning to my hostess: "I am ashamed to ask you this, but do you have a Walmart?" There could be an upside to US world commercial domination after all. But no, no Walmart. They have KFC in Trinidad, they have Churches effing Chicken, but no Walmart. And I have no rain jacket. We suck at world domination.

I ventured out anyway, determined to see as much of the town on foot as I could, not minding the wet because in this heat it is actually a bit of a relief. But alas, my tour of POS was a complete bust. My hostess told me which areas to avoid walking, but I think pretty much all of Port of Spain has seen better days, although I am not sure when those days were. Maybe before the Europeans came, when the island was covered in lush tropical jungle and no one lived here but the half naked Amerindians? Where those the better days?

The "Magnificent Seven," a row of seven colonial buildings dating from the early 1900's, including the offices of the Prime Minister, are not so magnificent any more. Moldy stucco, moldy wood, moldy stone (I'm not sure if stone can mold, but if it can, then the stone on these buildings was moldy). Who got the idea that construction in the tropic zone was a good idea? How does anything ever set or dry here? There was probably a damn good reason why equatorial peoples evolved as scantily clad hunter gatherer tribes who lived in shelters made from palm trees and shit (well, not literally shit). There is nothing to rot or mold or get soggy. Silly white people: "Hey! I have a great idea! Let's introduce northern construction materials!!! Won't that be fun? We can build something with dry wall and then watch it mold and then immediately repair it and keep repairing it until it finally crumples and then we can rebuild it! Good times!"

Truly, I have nothing to report on Port of Spain other than to avoid it altogether unless you are coming here for Carnival (which by all accounts is legendary, rivals Rio's, and draws revelers from the world over). The best part of the two hour trek was Dexter, a local who joined me shortly after leaving my guest house. He asked if I knew that Barak Obama was going to deliver us to the Promised Land. "Well, I don't know about that, but I voted for him if that counts any," I said. "No, he will deliver us. Martin Luther King - you know Martin Luther King? - Yes, he had a dream of the Promised Land and he didn't get to see it, but Barak Obama is going to take us there." UM. OK. Sure. If you say so Trini dude. In addition to MLK and Obama, Dexter covered Napolean Bonaparte, the American Revolution in 1776, former CIA director George Tenet, the new CIA director Leon Panetta, and the origination of the US Marine Corps. It was the most interesting coversation all day.

I gave up on Port of Spain, hoofed back to my room, grabbed a coconut along the way (guy hacked it open and I slurped the juice), showered off the wet and the sweat, and napped in self defense until is was time to retreat to the airport for the rendezvous with the Earthwatch People.

My guy with the coconuts:

June 20, 2010

Day 1 or The Shoulder is Always the Fastest Lane in Trinidad

June 19, 2010

Tonight, as I flew over the Caribbean sea, the light from the half moon reflecting off the obsidian surface of the water, I thought how blessed I am that I am about to experience one of the adventures on my personal 1,000 Places to See/Things to Do Before I go Belly Up list. I am going to meet face to face with one of the last living dinosaurs on earth, a leatherback turtle. The turtle got added to "The List" a couple of years ago when I saw and episode of Globe Trekker. Justine, the host, was lying prone in the sand on a beach in Trinidad, her face just inches from that of a giant egg laying Leatherback. I could see on her face, wide with wonder, that she was having a profound experience, like she was touching The Infinite. And since I am all about the Cosmic Connection these days, I made a mental addition to the 1,000PTS/TTDBIGBU list. And now here I am, flying to my own date with a turtle.

My guest house was kind enough to send a taxi to pick me up at the airport, and as I exited customs I saw the sign with my name spelled in a new and exciting way. My driver, however, was shaking his head. "Two hours of traffic to get into Port of Spain, eh?" (I haven't figured out how to write the Trinidadian accent, so just imagine Jamaican, mon. Et's close eenough for de time, eh?) He lead me out to a 1979 Caprice Classic, eggplant colored. This car screamed to be on Pimp My Ride. It was the ultimate pimp-mobile. Inside was a time capsule of automobile nostalgia: first generation automatic windows and door locks with the flat metal toggle, old school radio, bench seats. This car would translate to instant street cred back home. I sensed he was pretty proud of it too by the way he answered "1979" with decided verve when I asked what year it was.

On the ride from the airport I learned that lane demarkations in Trinidad are just suggestions really. When the traffic came to a painful stand still along with the air, and we sat with the windows open in the oppressive heat sucking the exhaust of the other hoopty cars inches from us, my driver swerved left onto the shoulder, and proceeded to drive, unimpeded, for a substantial distance. "Dee shoulda ees always da fastest lane in Trinidad, eh." If you say so Trini dude. Hence, what would have been a three hour drive from the airport, became a two hour drive. We passed, to my immense surprise, Churches Chicken and Popeyes. But I was downright pissed when we passed the combo Pizza Hut/KFC. Really, commercial world domination is annoying. When I groaned at KFC my driver said, "What, you don't like eet? KFC ees da nationale dish in Trinidad!"

In my room at my guest house at half past midnight, I showered, popped a laxative to pre-empt the encroaching Vacation Constipation, cranked the blessed window box A/C to the max possible, and drifted off into an uneasy, humid sleep.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 9 or God Bless Immodium

Notes on Saturday June, 27, 2009

If it is possible to have a full-on beef hangover, I had one this morning. Last night's beef and beer binge has left a large food baby in my stomach which necessitaed a morning long camp out in the bathroom.

Problem. In Brazil you don't flush your toilet paper. You put it in a trash bin right next to the toilet. True, this concept was pretty gross and inexplicable at first, but as long as you have the vacation constipation and you are just peeing all the time, it's really NBD. But then the Amazonian fruits and the indigenous vegetables do their thing, and needless to say the vacation constipation has come to an earth shattering end. And then you are mortified about your horrifically skid marked toilet paper decorating the top of the trash bin and you spend fifteen minutes arranging a layer of clean paper on top so the poor maid who has to empty it doesn't look at the remnants your intestinal discards and say to herself in Portuguese, "Damn girl, what did you eat?"

I don't know what it is. Is my body rejecting the hormone and antibotic free meat? Is it rebelling against the unprocessed carbohydrates and preservative free vitamin laden fruits and veg? Is it protesting the free range chicken? the fresh milk? the organic coffee? the fresh squeezed juices? Are my intestines screaming, "I want my high fructose corn syrup back!"? What gives? How much more of this can I take? And it's even more embarrassing because today everyone was waiting for me downstairs to go on an excursion. When I finally escaped the bathroom I found everyone outside already with the cars out waiting to go. I didn't know how to say, "I was upstairs shitting my intestines out my ass" in Portuguese, so I just shrugged and said "desculpe" (sorry) and got in the car three shades of red.

They say one of the hallmarks of an old person is if you sit around with your other old people friends and discuss the nature and frequency of your bowel movements. I guess Rachel and I qualify. We look at each other, shake our heads in disbelief and say "Jesus girl, what did we eat?" Then we go pop and Immodium. I am not sure what's preferable, the vacation constipation or the vacation constipation liberation. One thing is for sure, my poor butt is endlessly on fire.

When I did finally leave the bathroom we piled into a couple of car's and headed out of town, up into the mountains. Rodrigo's parents are buying a farm. The Godfather, Ze, is an agronomist by trade. He helps farmers get loans from the Brazilian government by signing off on their farm projects. Basically, Ze gets paid to spend the government's money. Pretty good deal. But now Ze wants his own farm, his own little piece of paradise where he can build a farm house with an enormous kitchen and an even better restaurant.

The farm he has his eye on is six or seven km from town. We bounce over unpaved red dirt roads, we kick up a clouds of orange dust, we rumble across more wood plank bridges that don't look strong enough to hold the weight of a cat, let alone a car, and we pass other farms with coffee beans spread out on wide flat pavements drying in the sun. When we arrive and THE farm, my jaw drops in the dirt. This ain't Anutie Em's farm, Dorothy. This is a coffee farm, high and verdent and lush. It looks like what I think Hawaii might look like having never been there.

We spent the day wending through the dense coffee bushes, eating citrus straight from the tree, admiring the papaya, pineapple, apple, banana, orange trees. We found mandioca root (the staple of the diet) peppers, herbs, avocados, raspberries. I ate a ripe coffee bean (it tasted like persimmon). Diego took a machete to a sugar cane stalk. He hacked it down, whittled the outer husk away, and cut a chunk for each of us. You are supposed to wedge the chunk into your back teeth and bite down, letting the sweet juice explode over your tongue. I liked it, even though the cane was fibrous and hard and I had little sugar cane splinters in my mouth I had to keep spitting out. We drank mineral water from a spring. I pointed to a colorful rooster and said "Chupa cabra" to Ze and he chuckled and shook his head.

Then we climbed a hillside to the site where Ze and Mariza want to build the new farm house (a.k.a. the future vacation spot of yours truly if I can manage to get adopted as the long lost white cousin, or I can just wrangle another invitation). The view from the hillside was made by God herself and Rachel and I salivated over the notion of waking up to that outside your window every morning. From that spot on the hillside you could see all of the valley and the mountains beyond, the coffee bushes draping the hillsides like those netted Christmas lights, the mist shrouding the highest peaks.

Rodrigo mentioned that this part of Espirito Santo is so overlooked that scientists discovered three new species of plant and animal here in the last few years. And Rachel and I marveled that we are very likely the first outsiders to set foot on this land since the Portuguese moved through. (Seriously, the majority of the people in Iuna have never seen a foreigner). It makes me feel like an explorer, like a pioneer, like a brave adventuress off scouting unknown, unseen lands and I get giddy with the idea of it.

But thank God I get to climb back into a Fiat and not a conestoga wagon and ride back to town in relative comfort and sit on a real toilet for the rest of the day with my intestinal affliction where I don't have to wipe with banana leaves. This is mercy indeed.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Informational Update

Sunday, June 28, 2009

There is a chance I may not return home, ever. But not because I was mugged in Rio, or because I was eaten by an Anaconda, or my kidneys harvested in Sao Paulo and I was left in a bathtub in some favela. But because the US is up two to zero against Brazil right now in the FIFA Confederation Championship and I cannot help my nationality. Rodrigo's dad keeps threatening not to feed Rachel and I if the US wins. I could starve to death down here.

As it is, I have a bet with Rodrigo's dad that I'll drink a shot of cachaca every time the US scores, so I'm already in trouble.

Day 8 or the Real Churrasco

Notes on Friday, June 26, 2009

Breakfast today was a revelation. A soup (soup?) made with farm fresh cow's milk (they have to boil the milk!), clove, cinnamon, roasted peanuts and hominy. Who in the world thought this up? Is there a special Betty Crocker prize for creating the homeiest, christmas-y tasting, sweet and hearty soup ever? I could eat a vat of it everyday in winter. I realize I am living in a restaurant with a master chef who started cooking at the age of 11. You never know what is going to be put in front of you and so you taste slowly, cautiously with just the tip of your spoon, until the tastebuds explode with pleasure and you think "And I didn't even pay $15 for this!"

It was good we had the super soup too, because today's outing was a trek up to the same spot we were last night, high above town, to visit the shrine of Agua Santa (Holy Waters). It didn't take long climbing the steep cobbled streets of Iuna before Rachel and I start feeling the sweat beads forming on our brows and our breath coming harder. Rodrigo pointed to an old woman walking up the same hill. We look over and this 70 year old woman's mouth isn't even open! She is breathing entirely through her nose and great! Rachel and I have now gotten smoked by a crusty old lady. This is embarrassing. Muito embarrassing.

But once we cleared the edge of town, the dirt road opened to vast hills rolling with coffee and banana trees. The coffee bushes drape the sides of the mountains like those netted christmas lights. During the walk Rodrigo pointed out different plants. "When I was a kid we used to take this berry, see the spikes on it?, and we would use them in sling shots to pelt each other. See this plant? You can make tea with this." It seems like everything green has a use here, culinary, military or any -ary.

At the shrine, there is a molding display of molding pictures of people and pets who have been cured by the waters. There are bits of clothing from the faithful cured dangling from a clothesline, there are statues and prayers and the shrine is enclosed in a locked rusty iron fence that makes the whole thing look more depressing than miraculous. Still, the shrine is interesting, even if the sacred pool is full of stagnant green water. There is a spring of holy water you can drink from, which I did and I wonder if it the holy waters can cure you of an over active appetite as well as breast cancer. A little further on the trail is a fallen boulder that leans against the rock face of the mountain. Local lore says if you pass through the impossibly skinny opening between boulder and rock three times all your sins are forgiven. I figured I already did my penance last year on the pilgrimage, but why not attempt this just for good measure. So I squeeeeeeeze my boobs and booty and all the other junk through the crevice three times. And then it is Rachels turn. She gets about an eighth of the way into the opening, backs out and says, "I like my sins."

Back home in the afternoon, preparations were being made for that evening. Beer is delivered here like milk or soda used to be delivered to my house when I was a little kid. Long before everybody drove to Kroger for everything. I watch as Ze gives the beer delivery guy a shot of cachaca for his trouble before he leaves.

And at long last it is time for what I have come to Brazil for, churrasco (pronounced shur HA sko), brazilian barbeque. This particular cut of beef we are going to feast on tonight is called picanha and it is beef with an outer rim of fat marinated in rock salt, nothing more, and grilled over an open flame until deeply rich in flavor, with a salty crust, and addictive. The beer comes out, The rum (pronounced "hoom") and coke, the cachaca, the olives.

Back home in Atlanta there is a restaurant called Fogo de Chao and it is like $60 a person for sheer carnivorous hedonism. They have good looking gouchos in billowy pants serving the meat on skewers until you are full to bursting. But here everyone passes the cutting board around and takes a slice of beef, passes it on, and then waits for the next piece of picanha to get crusty and charred, when anyone who happens to be near the flame will slice it and pass it on again.

Then the musicians showed up. Not hired musicians though (unless you count payment of beer and beef and cachaca). These musicians are friends from the town. An old guy with a cerveja belly and his son. The old guy sat next to me with a bongo drum and his son strummed a baby guitar and everyone sang the songs of Brazil and drank and ate picanha. And everyone here is a musician or a singer. Rodrigo plays guitar and sings, Diego (Rodrigo's brother) taught himself to play drums. More than half of the people in Rodrigo's circle grew up playing some manner of device that makes a tune. And if someone doesn't have an instrument in their hands they are keeping time with a fork against a plate or knife on a bottle.

They switched to some English songs (the Beatles, Credence Clearwater, Elvis) and now Rachel and I could at least join in on the refrains (embarrassing that we don't even know the verses to Have You Ever Seen the Rain and Brazilians do). No one here knows the actual words though, they all sing phonetically like we sing La Bamba and have no idea what the actual words are. It is pretty amusing to hear the lyrics to Proud Mary sung as "bih wee kee on tornee, prow mary kee on bournee, holih, holih, holih ona reeeva." At some point during all of this merry making I got the notion that I could sing and felt an urgent need to regale them all with my rendidtion of Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkle despite the fact that I didn't know all the lyrics and the fact that people wouldn't pay me the gum off their shoe to hear me sing. But noooooooo. I wanted to sing damnit. It was about to get American Idol up in here. So I quickly copied the lyrics from Google on Lolita's computer (that's Rodrigo's sister) and returned for my duet with the old bongo player. I sang in my clunky alto, occaisionally switching to my blood curdling mezzo, only to be marginally kept in tune by bongo man. Between the two of us (he sang the words phonetically but at least he was in tune, I was flat but I had the lyrics in front of me) we made a halfway decent go of it. And when the end came I howled like a dog at myself, which made everyone laugh.

And then out came a curry goat that made me squeal with pleasure. Spicy, smokey, oniony. OMG, this was a carnivores dilemma: the goat, salty and spicy and juicy? or the beef, salty and crusty from the grill. I was already nursing a serious food baby by the time the goat came out. But I couldn't stop myself (apparently the holy waters from Agua Santa do not cure an obscene appetite).

Two more friends showed up with guitars and cowboy hats and now they started singing the haunting, lonely Brazilian country music of the western ranchers. Their harmony was beautiful and aching and my belly was aching too and we all swayed to the acoustic strumming and let it wash over us as we digested the large land animals in our stomachs. I guess Brazilian cowboy music is appropriate for cow digestion. At 12:30 I could not longer keep upright and needed to retreat to my sanctuary to digest in horizontal fashion. But the party continued for a few more hours and I realized that this sort of impromptu gathering is the normal order here in Iuna, in Brazil. This is the real churrasco, and a million times better than Fogo de chao.

Hey come on over! tell so and so to come too. and so and so. we'll throw a cow on the grill. we'll get the beer delivered. we'll sit around, drink, eat, play. sing. laugh. live.

The Godfather Part IV

Notes on Jose Carlos Dias de Carvalho

If Juan Valdez had played the Godfather instead of Marlin Brando, you'd pretty much have the start of Ze. Throw in an impish sense of humor and a penchant for mischief and now you are getting even warmer.

Ze wears a fedora and a mustache. He refused to be photographed without his hat on. His button down short sleeve shirts are left open. He has tiny feet and wears tiny cowboy boots.

When Ze wakes up at 5:00 am, he starts cooking, and he doesn't stop until after dinner (he is semi retired). Feeding large quantities of people large quantities of food seems to be his passion (along with cacti, of which he has over 200). Ze has been cooking since he was 11 (unusual for a man in these parts), and cooking is no joke for Ze. He doesn't let anyone else in the house cook, not even his wife. Once he fired a maid for burning rice in the bottom of a pan.

Ze will put a meat dish on the table at lunch and tell Rachel and I it's cat. Ze will make a shrimp dish and tell Rachel (who doesn't eat seafood) that he made it just for her.

When Ze decides everyone else in the house should be up, usually around 9:30, he goes up to the terrace and cranks the Brazilian Forro music on the sound system. Forro is music from the northeast of Brazil that combines African drums with, oh my god, the accordian. It's not pretty. I feel like I am back in my Opa's house listening to German polka and I wonder how on earth did northeastern Brazil, which was mostly populated by African slaves, get hold of the accordian and why on earth, once they got it, did they keep it? It was funny the first five times.

Ze's neighbor calls to ask him to turn the music down and he hangs up the phone and turns the music up. He thinks the neighbors are uptight and too religious and he likes to antagonize them.

When Ze summons you to play canasta, you will be playing canasta. Canasta is another thing Ze takes seriously besides cooking and cacti. Ze sits across from Mariza and cusses at Rachel and I in Portuguese. When we don't discard a card he can use he pounds his fist on the table and cries "damn you!!!" and then giggles because we don't understand him. When we put a black 3 on the pile preventing him from snatching it he grumbles "punta merde." That's "bitch shit," another popular (if inexplicable) combination of cuss words.

By the way, people cuss alot down here. Cussing is an all occaison pastime. Spill some juice? Stub your toe? Just say "caralho!" (cock!). They say "sperm" alot too. Sperm is a good one. The word is porra and it also means cum. Dog peed on the floor? "porra!" works fine.

Rodrigo comes up and Ze tells him that he's been cussing at us the whole time and we don't even know it, then he chuckles so that his shoulders bounce up and down like he has the hiccoughs really fast. Ze is happy when he wins at canasta. Ze says Barack Obama is fixing the game if Rachel and I have a good round. I get the feeling it's not smart for us to win.

When Brazil beat South Africa in the FIFA Confederation Championship semi final and Brazil was going to play the U.S. in the final that Sunday, Ze started threatening Rachel and I that if the U.S. won, we wouldn' eat.

Ze calls me Kreecheena, because pronouncing Kristin is a pain in the ass. Or sometimes he just calls me "the tall woman."

Ze's last name is Carvalho, which means "oak" in Portuguese. Interestingly, Carvalho is only one easily unenunciated V off from caralho, "cock." There is a saying in Portuguese you use when you're pissed at someone: "I'm gonna send you to the casa des caralhos." I'm gonna send you to the house of cocks. Ze intentionally answers his phone, "Casa de Carvalho" and nearly drops the V.

Ze wants to marry me off. When he asked Rachel about me before I came down, he wanted to know three things: Is she a picky eater? (no), Does she drink? (um. a bit), and is she religious? (about drinking). All right answers. So Ze wants me to marry one of Rodrigo's 1800 cousins because he is tall like me and speaks English. I meet him and immediately decide on e-Harmony. Ze is fired along with Melie.

Before my arrival on the scene, Ze had a conversation with Duck. In Portuguese, the verb "comir" means "to eat." It is also used as a double entendre for "to fuck." Moecco asked if I liked to eat Duck. Ze shook his head and said, "No one likes to eat Duck."

Ze likes to tease me when I get up late in the morning by saying "good afternoon," even if it is clearly still morning, and I insistantly tell him "good morning."

When Ze is finished cooking for the day, he goes to his bedroom, stretches out on the bed and watches his Tele Novellas. These are Brazilian soap operas, which everybody, even the men watch down here. They are more dignified than the Spanish and Mexican one's I've seen, like Fuego en la Sangre." He turns the volume up super loud, like the Forro music, and falls asleep.

Political correctness is not in Ze's vocabulary. When Ze commented about Barack Obama Mariza said "whatever, you had an afro in the 70's." In Portuguese the words for afro literally translate to "black power." The actual hair style is called black power. Ze looked chagrinned and defended himself, "the black power was the style then!"

I like Ze.

Day 7 or the Mysteries of Iuna

Notes on June 25th, 2009

In the U.S. I don't drink orange juice because I don't think it tastes like oranges. Ever. In Spain I drank it when ever I could because it was fresh squeezed by an automatice machine. And this morning I drank tangerine-orange juice fresh squeezed by hand and the oranges were from less than a mile away. I can feel the vitamins and minerals coursing through my body making me healthy and whole and giving me super powers. I want to climb Mt. Everest!

Today I saw Iuna (pronounced Yuna). This is where Rodrigo's family lives and I gotta say, Iuna is not a pretty town. It's not exactly a pit (I've been in a few pits to get gas and whatnot with Mike and Melie), but it's far from a show pony. There has been little attention payed to aesthetics here, except the odd, half-hearted attempt to plant some trees in a town square, or make a nice stone walkway by the riverside. But other than that, nada. A few individual houses here and there have spruced up a tad, added some pretty flowers, a decorative railing, a nice paint color, but there is no "nice neighborhood" per se. At first glance you'd be tempted to think this was a working class town, because it is clear the focus is on utility, not prettiness. It is a place where farmers still come into town sitting in a cart pulled by a donkey or horse. And oddly, unfinished buildings are all over, some of them lived in, some seemingly abandoned. Rodrigo says there is a saying in Brazil, everything under construction is already a ruin. People build their own houses and when the money runs out, they stop for a while. So second stories languish, stucco may cover only the first floor, or the roof over the terrace is still a work in progress. Rachel says the dirt pile on the street in front of the neighbor's house has been there since she started coming to Iuna four years ago.

But the gritty facade of the town belies a great deal of coffee wealth, which is hidden indoors, or in other ways. Rodrigo pointed out the houses of wealthy coffee growers and informed me that alot of people, when they accumulate money, buy more land instead of sprucing up the houses. Probably not a bad idea. After all, who are they trying to impress? Foreigners don't come hear for anything. It would be like going to the U.S. and visiting Hamilton, OH. Why would you? And every middle class family has a maid. The maid does the dishes, the laundry, she cleans everything, she mops, irons, dusts. (I haven't washed a dish or done a lick of my own laundry since I've been here, and I'm kinda getting spoiled). Oh, and your second story might not be finished, but you sure as shit have satellite TV. No doubt.

Lunch today was my first experience of Ze's home cooking. Ze made baccalao. Ironically, baccalao is not Brazilian. It is Norwegian salted cod, and it is very fancy and special down here because it comes all the way from Norway and ain't cheap. I think Ze was putting on the dog for me a bit, but I didn't come here to eat Norwegian food. I want Brazilian beef and weird amazonian fruits and vegetables I've never seen before! The baccalao was still good though, mixed with veggies and enough melted cheese to cause a coronary. But it reminded me of a tuna casserole. A really good tuna casserole, but still, tuna casserole is tuna casserole.

After dark R&R and Whathisname cousin and I went to a local bar and sat on the sidewalk drinking beer, when all the sudden we heard CNN announcing that MJ had bit it. What? Seriously? MJ? Dead? Jacko? It was kind of like hearing that sasquatch had been found, it was not at all what you were expecting.

Duck came by the bar, picked us up and drove us around the city. We were on our way to a high road above the town to get a good view when we passed the one and only motel in Iuna. The Motel Eldourado.

Brazilian motels are iconic. They are exclusively for sex. You rent the rooms by the hour, and they are rumored to have saunas, hot tubs, toys, mirrored ceilings, porn, the works. Only no one says so from experience because no one wants to admit they've been to one. They have names in English (because English is fancy here) like the Love Motel (with both O's as neon hearts), and the Kiss Motel and Motel Las Vegas (because what happens in the Motel Las Vegas stays in the Motel Las Vegas). They are surrounded by high walls and there is concealed parking so your wife or your husband or your mom can't drive by and see your car parked there. It is all designed to make infidelity super easy to commit.

So anyway we drive past the motel, which everyone gawks at hoping to use their x-ray vision to see what's going on inside, and we continue up to the ridge above town. There we get out and it's spooky because supposedly a woman commited suicide from up there (doesn't every town have a spooky spot where some depressed woman threw herself from a cliff?)and we talk about the chupacabra (that mysterious South American vampire wolf creature that drains chickens of their blood and leaves them floppy and lifeless with two fang holes on their necks). Then we look up at the sky and I am amazed at the stars again. I never see stars like this in Atlanta. I spot the Southern Cross, the only constellation I know in the southern hemisphere and vow to find out about more of them.

Patrol Night 2 or I Have Turtle Blood on My Hands

June 22, 2010 Tonight I am on the beach writing by the gibbous moonlight. The Atlantic is beating a persistent time, the stars sparkle, the ...