Friday, March 28, 2008

Random Memories Floating Up From Insomniaville

I had an outrageous pair of black vinyl stockings when I was 13 or so. You wore them with black leather shoes and they looked like thigh-high boots. I saw them in a Tokyo department store and wanted them more than anything, but they were a bit extravagant for a junior high schooler. I kept thinking about them, though, and finally decided that if I didn't get them then, I would never find anything like them, ever, and justified the purchase.

They were shiny, crushed-vinyl stockings and had a patent leather-ish belt where the stockings hit your thigh and they looked absolutely fab. But to my disappointment, I found that you could not bend your knees very well in these stockings and they made you walk around stiff-legged. I probably wore them once. They were very impractical. I don't know where they went, but I wish I had them today. What a cool piece of late-60s/early-70s fashion!

I suddenly remembered them last night, as I struggled to get to sleep. It bummed me out that they were gone.

Oh, and another thing that continues to bum me out. I lost all of my "bookmarks" from my browser when my laptop got stolen. I've been able to re-locate most of my favorite blog sites, but there's one by a guy who moved to the country, is building his own home. Aargh, I can't remember the name of his blog! It had the most wonderful bird photos. If you are reading this...or you know who I'm talking about...can you leave me the URL? I really miss that site.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Blues for Papa

I wonder what Key West was like when Ernest Hemingway first arrived here. It must have been the same milky blue sea all around him. The Caribbean blue that is unique to this area. If they made a drink with blue curacao and milk (a blue cow?) it would look like the water here. But if he had sailed into the southwestern part of the island, the "downtown" of Key West today, he would have turned right around and headed for Cuba, I am sure.

Today's Key West is built up like just another waterfront tourist town. Same souvenir shops, theme restaurants and bars, non-descript chain hotels and condos. The streets are crowded with tourists -- in cars and scooters and electric carts, on foot, on bicycles (for the first time in 30 years?) -- and the marinas are jammed with all types of watercraft.

It seems that there are three types of people here.
1) Those that love being above the water. Boating, fishing, sailing, jet-skiing... Some are tourists who spoil the tranquility of a lush lagoon with their diesel smoke-belching watercraft. Some are real Men of The Sea, in crafts big and small, luxurious and funky.
2) Those that love being in the water. Divers, snorkelers, swimmers...
3) The others. The ones who aren't tourists are involved in the tourist trade somehow. They could be from anywhere. In fact, you could pick them up from Key West and plonk them down in a Cannery Row shop in Monterey and they would fit right in.

Big Dog and I are terrible tourists. We hate "vacationing," preferring to "live" in a place to find out what a new locale is all about. We rile at tourist prices. K. must think we are nuts when we drive a mile away from downtown to find "free" parking instead of letting her pay $20 (!) for a parking lot. It's not about frugality, per se, so much as our traveler lifestyle. When you live on the road, you have to live within the local economy, rather than the tourist economy. After five years of wandering around, it's just the way we work.

As much as I badmouth Hemingway ("I hate the term 'male chauvinist.' Because of this term, no one understands what 'chauvinist' really means anymore and thinks it's a synonym for 'sexist' but it's the perfect term to describe him") I suppose I'm as big a romantic as he was and was secretly hoping to find something authentic and endearing about this town. It's not in any of the places advertised in tour guides, I can tell you that. A shadow of it remains in the handful of colorful old timers as well as the old houses that line the side streets -- charming wooden houses and cottages (are these conch houses?) with sloping metal roofs and shady tropical gardens -- but even these felt too touristy at times, as if they had been preserved in their loveliness for the passing visitor. There was more life in the black neighborhoods. Old men sitting on the sidewalks, watching the tourist circus go by. Neighbors shouting across the street to each other.

"This is where I'd live if I were on Key West," I said to Big Dog. Maybe the houses weren't as cute and quaint as the historical houses, but I loved their easy, low-slung funkiness. And they were real. Much more real than the Hemingway House which we wound up bypassing. Papa would certainly understand.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Stone Is Best, Mon

"Looks like a warehouse. Or maybe a wholesaler," I eyed the forklifts, the plain concrete buildings, the young man in a rubber apron hosing off the floor.

It was a cloudy, blustery day on Vaca Key and we had just walked the 2 miles and back on the old bridge that connects Vaca Key with Pigeon Key. From the bridge we were able to watch a GIANT spotted eagle ray gliding gracefully, a school of nurse sharks, what looked like a hawksbill turtle, some brown groupers, needlefish, mermaid-sized (and shaped) blue fish, strange tie-dye colored fish (on their way to a jam band show?) and more. During the walk, I told K that the concept of "catch-and-release" wasn't accepted by Japanese anglers until quite recently.

"We eat everything we fish," I explained. "If you can't eat it, don't fish it. If you have enough to eat, stop fishing." I was a bit upset by a small pile of hand-sized fish that were left to rot on a grassy knoll near the start of the old bridge. And perhaps it's this attitude of "but we make use of everything we catch..." that makes so many Japanese feel defensive about their whaling. It was never a culture to kill for sport, unlike the West, so I think many Japanese feel the Western World is being completely hypocritical in their criticism of Japanese whaling. I, for one, don't support whaling and I'm sorry that it affects the livelihoods of some families, but you gotta stop somewhere! Just because families depend on logging doesn't mean you can go and cut down old growth redwoods, you know? But I digress.

"Do you sell fish?" Big Dog asked the rubber apron man.
"In the office," he pointed.

The office was just that. An office. No fish in sight. Anywhere. Just "Raymond" manning one of the desks and a few others in the back office.
"Do you sell retail?" we had to keep asking.
"Sure. Mostly wholesale, to the restaurants, but we sell to individuals, too."

He gave us a list of what they had and we wound up buying some fresh yellowtail, some fresh stone crab claws and some fresh-frozen tuna. All of the fish was stored somewhere beyond our prying eyes!

"The claws are fresh and won't last long. Make sure you crack them outside because they'll squirt all over the place," advised Raymond who had grown up on Vaca Key.

About an hour later, Big Dog was bashing the living daylights out of the stone crab claws with some barbeque tools. We had no hammer and the tire jack in the car was our last resort. I wish he had let me take some photos before cracking the claws, though. They were so pretty, like coral, cream and black parrot beaks! And so we admired them for about 10 seconds before we began our giant crab claw pig-out.

"They're so sweet and tasty!"
"....." (Big Dog rarely makes his enjoyment vocal.)

I was feeling a little sorry for the poor guys who'll be clawless for a while, but I always take the words of my angler brother to heart: "They sacrificed themselves for your pleasure. You HAVE TO enjoy them to the max." We did.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Time for Margaritaville

It was flat, alright.

Karma? Or what? Since we left the Mexican fishing village, we've had a flat tire on a plane, a flight that couldn't take off, a screw up in motel reservations and now a flat tire on our rented Toyota Prius?! What next?

AAA came to the rescue in no time at all, quickly jacked up the car, put on the spare, a toy-sized tire, and we were able to get a replacement vehicle before heading south to The Keys.

But when we got to Marathon we found that the real estate agency that was supposed to give us the keys to the house we had rented for the week failed to leave them for us and no one was around because it was Easter. Keyless in the Keys. The owner quickly arranged to have the neighbor open the place up for us. We'll work out the rest with the agency tomorrow. Small hiccups, but maybe the major problems are behind us.

I like the atmosphere here so far. It's very Low Key.
Big Dog and I agreed that it had a kind of Saipan-ish vibe. American but a bit third world and funky. It's so much better than antiseptic franchises and cookie cutter resorts. The rain clouds have gone away, it's warm (and humid! too humid for K who is used to the high desert dry, but I love it!) and the sun is starting to set. Must be time for Margaritaville!

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Postcards from Waterland

Mangrove madness everywhere...

Nature's such an artist!

Panther Crossing...

This purple gallinule was completely captivated by the girl's granola bar. Eventually, it figured out that no matter how cute it looked, she wasn't going to give him any and in anger, flew right into her face. If she had stupidly given him any, his entire tribe would have come out for more, turning the scene into something Hitchcockian.

Can you see Gator Mom standing guard in the water? You can believe she's super fast when she wants to be. In this photo, there are 3 babies, but there were about six in this nesting hole.

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Gliding through The 'Glades

Florida is flat and watery. I worry that with global warming revving up like it is, it will all be under water sooner than anyone thinks. All that water makes the place very humid. Most places this humid are green and jungly, but southern Florida is mostly flat expanses of sawgrass with little tiny islands of hardwood called "hammocks" popping up here and there. At least in nature it's that way. An alarming amount of Florida has already come under the nasty grip of developers and in the humid flatness, there's also an abundance of strip malls and housing developments. Thankfully, once you're in the Everglades National Park, it's mostly just nature.

"I have never been to a place in the U.S. with so many people who don't speak English!" exclaimed K. She's Big Dog's sister-in-law who was supposed to have joined us in Costa Rica but had to cancel after we aborted our stay. This was the make-up trip.

"People come from all over the world to the National Parks, don't they. The natural wonders of this country are simply astonishing, breathtaking, unsurpassed... The landscapes, the flora and fauna are the real treasures of this continent," I gushed.

And we kept encountering proof that the world thought so, too. German, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, French, really did hear dozens of different languages spoken as you wandered around the Visitor Centers and meandered down the well-designed walking trails.

Much of the Everglades is best seen by boat, canoe or kayak, but even on land, there are moments of pure wonder. The Mahogany Hammock walk, where you go into a lushly vegetated "hammock" filled with palms, gumbo limbo trees, strangler figs and air plants, has America's oldest mahogany tree, a marvelously regal tree with long, gracefully curving branches that host giant blooming bromeliads.

For fauna, the Anhinga Trail can't be beat!
"Is that an anhinga?"
"Looks like one. Do you think that's a great blue heron?"
"There's a snowy egret!"
Even those of us with only a rudimentary knowledge of birds become avid bird watchers!

And then, there are the American alligators. The first sighting is like seeing Elvis.
"Oh, oh, oh...look! An alligator!!!" I squealed. It was dusk and dinner time and the one I spotted in the canal was probably looking for a tasty morsel. Just then, there's a sudden movement in the water, a big splash and the alligator had a fish in its mouth.
"Did you see that?" marveled Big Dog. "He curved his body around the fish to trap it against the reeds and when the fish swam towards its mouth...wham! He's so clever!" He was impressed. (Animals of indeterminate gender always become male for him when he's impressed.)

As you go further down the trail, though, you realize that the place is crawling with 'gators! Big ones, little ones, eating, swimming, resting. In the mangrove-rimmed lakes, they happily co-exist with the water birds and turtles.

Today, we braved huge black clouds to drive down the Tamiami Trail ("Do you think it's an Indian name?" asked K. who is as curious as I am in almost everything. We found out that no, it's just short for Tampa-to-Miami) to Shark Valley where we saw ponds filled with baby alligators, more birds, turtles, and never saw but heard a chorus of pig frogs making hilarious farting sounds.

The Tamiami Trail is dotted with air boat businesses. Somehow speeding through the marshes on an air boat doesn't really appeal to me. It feels like you are disturbing the sanctity of nature too much. Like carrying a boombox into a cathedral. A canoe or kayak would be much better, but without a guide, you could get so lost in the reeds and water lilies. The landscape made me think of Carl Hiassen's novels.

"You'd like him," I mentioned to Big Dog. "The main guy in Sick Puppy is just like you."
He scowled. Big dogs don't like to be associated with sick puppies, I guess.
"In a really good way!" I added.

From the Tamiami Trail, you can take the Loop Road through Big Cypress National Preserve, dense with big cypress and bromeliads. It's really wet here but just about halfway down the Loop Road, the clouds broke and poured celestial buckets on us as if to say "heh heh heh, you ain't seen nothin' yet!" It was true.

A couple of days in the 'Glades can hardly do it justice. One day we'll be back, with canoes and tents to pitch on those charming perches called chickees that rise out of the water, to do a real tour of the Everglades, but for now, this will have to do.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Foiled Again

Maybe I've been bitching too much about air travel and it's tarnished my flying karma. We were foiled again. This time, it's the storm that's stretched from Texas to Maine. All flights to Houston were either severely delayed or canceled yesterday and we had to fly through Texas to get to Miami.

None of our choices sounded very good.
1) Fly to Houston whenever and spend the night in the airport until the first available flight to Miami the next morning. The airline wouldn't put us up because the mess is caused by weather and the ground crew warned us that we might not find any place outside the airport to stay because of the already-stranded thousands.
2) Take a red-eye to Houston and then spend hours in the airport waiting for the flight to Miami.
3) One of us get to Miami one day late.
4) Both of us get to Miami two days late.

We went for Option Four. An extra trip back to the LA condo with our luggage, but minimal time in an airport named after the 41st President of the US of A.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nature Does a Slam Dance

It's springtime in Southern California! The blossoms are blooming like there's no tomorrow -- callas, birds of paradise, azaleas, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, jacaranda, orange, lemon, honeysuckle, daisies, plumeria... At night, the air is heady with the perfumes of all fragrant things. West LA is like a Hawaiian bride, festooned with lei upon sweet-smelling lei.

And in Canyon Country, northeast of the San Fernando Valley, little orange poppies are already in bloom and hills are dusted with sunset smiles & saffron spilled by a careless curry chef. It's going to be a great year at the California Poppy Reserve. After the rains of winter, nature sure does a men slam dance!

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Dreaded SSSS & The Long Way North

"You'll have to come over this way," said the TSA staff at Phoenix airport. We were already 20 hours into our trip north, from Mexico. A flat tire on our plane kept us south of the border an extra night, we had just had to fork over 18 dollars on our first meal of the day -- our meal vouchers were $5 each! not even enough to buy a crappy in-flight sandwich ($7) -- Big Dog was furious and swearing to go talk to the supervisor. Now this.

"See this code here?" the security guy points out four S's printed on my boarding pass.
"What, so this is the airline targeting me for an extra security check? For what possible reason?"
"I don't know, ma'am. You'll have to ask the airline."
Big Dog was livid, but kept his cool for the moment while I went into my Super Strip Search Security clearance.

We suspected Harold at the connections desk. Not only was he not very helpful to us, he was snippy and rude to his co-workers. Maybe being the only male there made him that way, I don't know.

This wasn't the first time we'd been on a disrupted flight. Big Dog and I had had our plane diverted on its way to Tokyo to help a man suffering a heart attack. We made an emergency landing in Anchorage and had to stay there overnight. But that was a Singapore Airlines flight and not US Airways. On that flight to Tokyo, the airline staff did everything it could to make us as comfortable as possible, pre-arranging a giant midnight buffet dinner at the hotel in Anchorage. If they hadn't, there wouldn't have been anything to eat anywhere at that hour. When the bus picked us up in the morning, we went straight to our plane and onward with minimal downtime. This time, it was chaos every inch of the way.

"I felt like we were cattle," mumbled a friend who was sharing the same first leg of the trip north.
"Yeah. They might as well have had electric prodders," I agreed.

That's the sad story of much of the service industry these days. Especially airlines. Somewhere along the way, they have forgotten that we are customers. After 9-11, too many of the airline staff behave like prison guards, nannies, mental hospital orderlies.

Was it a coincidence that during this long journey north, I pick up a discarded newspaper and opened it to an article on how United and US Airways will only allow 1 piece of checked baggage per passenger from May?

"Travelers will get used to it, and then all the other airlines will follow," commented an airline spokesperson in the article. We get less and less all the time, but most of us just accept it. Like cattle. No wonder they treat us like that.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Miss List

I haven't even left Mexico and I am already listing other things I will miss:

- The periwinkle sky. It's somehow more colorful than up north!
- The noise. Military drills, dogs, cats, construction, vendors, PR trucks, music, engines, birds... West LA sounds totally dead after Mexico. So dead, it send me into a spiral of depression. I'm going to have to hang out in East LA! But the music will be different.....
- The freedom. You think the rest of the world envies the US for its freedoms? Ha! Are you kidding? Mexicans are free in a way that the Americans have not known for decades. Maybe never. Try driving a pickup with your extended family in the back, for example. Or build a pyrotechnic erector set tower in front of YOUR church and set off rockets every night for a week. Or have your 12 year old work at your restaurant while your 10 year old is caring for your 8 year old. Or simply stroll down the beach with a beer in your hand.
- Buying real food at real stores. Greengrocers for fruit and veggies. Butchers for meat. Fishmongers for seafood. Tortilla shops for tortillas. Et cetera. Take a container to the local restaurants and get some chile rellenos to go.
- I've already gone on and on about the fish, but they have lovely produce as well. Not a giant variety, but almost all of it is local and delicious. It's as good as what you'd find at a farmers' market up north, except cheaper.
- The People!! I love the simple, content, beautiful people of this village. I love how they are friendly without being too familiar.
- The Sometimes Bizarre Non-Mexicans who can be all too familiar without being very friendly. (The man who came to our house a dozen times insisting we let him use our internet connection comes to mind immediately. "There are several internet cafes in town," I told him but all he had to say was "Their connection speed isn't very good." And then there was the mother-son party crashing tag team. They came to a dinner we were having with friends, ate most of the food, drank bucketfuls of Miss J's tequila but ignored us henceforth!)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Una Semana

We're leaving Mexico in a week. What a drag.

The Northerners may be here for the weather -- and it IS nice -- but I feel like I am here for the seafood. I've never been able to get over how limited the selection is in California. Our ranch is right near the coast, with a lovely bay and fishing boats to take game fishers out to sea, but even at the tiny fish market on the embarcadero, you rarely see anything beyond the usual (and, I suspect, most of it coming from somewhere far away.) What's wrong? Is the water too polluted for local fish? In Santa Monica, we have the seafood section at Whole Foods which has some nice things, as well as a gourmet seafood shop where there's a pretty good variety, but it's Very Expensive. Otherwise, it's the salmon-halibut-snapper with their fresh water buddies, tilapia (too creepy!) and catfish, in the supermarkets and they don't even smell right. In Japan, any rinky-dink supermarket (many as small as the smallest mini-mart in the US) has a big selection of fresh seafood.

Here in our little village, we don't get a whole lot of shellfish, but there is always a nice variety of fresh fish. I mean, exceptionally fresh. Anything that's good to eat raw CAN be eaten raw. Or marinated, pickled, stuffed, baked, fried, dried, grilled, broiled... For weeks, before we left the U.S., I was dreaming about the seafood here and I was not disappointed, though a few experiments didn't turn out quite as I expected. (Like, when I found some fresh fish roe at one of the fishmongers one Sunday. In Japan, cod fish roe is really common. There's the usual salty kind as well as the spicy karashi mentaiko from southern Japan, where my grandmother lived. The fish roe I found was about 10 times the size of cod fish roe, but I bought a chunk and cooked it in soy and sake. It wasn't very good. I wonder how the Mexicans eat it?)

Mackerel fresh enough to sashimi, red snapper that's so sweet and fluffy it'll make you moan, giant creamy oysters, fresh octopus, exceptional shrimp, big juicy flounders, meaty mahi-mahi, sarangola, pargo, all kinds of tuna..... ahhhhhhhh. Plus, Goro, the local Japanese dude, used to have a fish export biz so not only does he know all the fishermen, but has secret sources for delicacies rarely found in the shops. I am soooo going to miss it all.
Fishermen's cooperative near our house