Archive for June, 2007

A WILDERNESS CABIN

June 24, 2007

A WILDERNESS CABIN        Published in Travelin’ Magazine

A half day’s drive southeast of Fairbanks, where a wild stream roars out of the Alaska Range and tumbles down a boulder field, we pulled our rented car into a turnoff near the water.  It was early autumn.  The low sun stood just above the mountains, their slopes burnished with the coppery reds of tundra blueberry bushes.

We ate snacks in the car.  I noticed a two-track dirt lane leading away from the highway into alder and willow thickets.  We pulled on our coats and, walking at a brisk pace to stretch our legs, followed the road into the wild.

The place was pervaded by a strange sort of peace, the deep serenity I find in raw solitude and the vast spaces of the north.  Despite the harsh reality of thin soil and stunted trees, in country where rivers run amok and winter can be unspeakably cruel, the valley felt protected and good.

We saw no tire marks or other tracks on the road.  A mile in, the road ended abruptly at the rim of a cut bank bluff, as if it had launched into the air and vanished.  Grabbing pine branches for safety we looked over the edge into the cold, raging creek below.  Tangled roots hung above the water’s roar.  Something had been connected by that road, and was now cut off.

The golden day was crisp, the dry air scintillating with gusts that shook the leaves.  An animal trail continued on beside the stream, and we decided to keep going.  Breaking into golden willow bushes, we brushed past the springy limbs of young spruce trees, singing to warn off any nearby bears.  Bears don’t like to be ambushed.

We plowed along through overgrown country, then suddenly in front of us stood a log cabin.  It looked well kept.  We called out but nobody answered.  Was the owner nearby?  We did a little exploring.  The outhouse looked as if it had been abandoned, a sure sign nobody was in residence.  The unwritten rule of the wild north is anyone is welcome, any time, as long as you respect the place, so we knew we would not be seen as trespassers here if anyone did show up.

Many hopeful settlers find their way to Alaska, build a home and settle in, but few are able to earn a living in the rugged land.  It is not unusual to come across an abandoned homestead, in perfect condition.  This one had a tool shed, a hunter’s meat cache up on stilts to keep out the wolves, and an outhouse.  These cabins have saved many lives in bad weather, and everyone respects them because of this history.

We stepped up on the porch and pushed on the hand-built plank door.  It didn’t budge.  Through the front window we could glimpse a shadowy interior in good order.  But the place was locked up tight.  I sat on the edge of porch, feet swinging over the ferns.  This was an inviting location, well chosen.

The view took in a grand scene of sawtooth summits, framed by large spruces.  Beyond the creek, a canyon drew our eyes to a glacier at the end of the valley.  A breeze shimmered through a stand of yellow cottonwoods upstream.

Perhaps the builders had to give up the picture book place when the road washed out.  We sat on the rough planks and imagined living here — the cabin as home, a shelter in a remote country, a human place amid this endless wildness that had been preserved untouched since the beginning of things.

We started back to the car.  Not yet.  I hesitated, wanting to give it one more try.  I stepped up on the porch again.  In a moment of irrational hope, I pulled on a cord protruding through the door planks, and it lifted the hand-made wood latch inside.  The heavy, low door swung open.  We stepped over the high snow-threshold and onto a basketball court.

How could this be?  Painted stripes decorated the beautifully polished blond floor.  It was smooth as pond ice. It looked like some clever person had salvaged the wood from an old gymnasium.

Inside, the cabin was roomy and tight enough for winter, even a central Alaskan howler.  Temperatures hover below minus 60 degrees in the area for long periods some winters.  But, fire up the old cast iron stove and the thick walls of the cabin and its low sloped ceiling with sod insulation above would offer solid and friendly protection.

I recalled a story about a couple that wintered over in a crude shelter in Alaska’s northernmost Brooks Range.  This place would do nicely for such an adventure.  Yes, one could survive here quite content, chopping wood, carrying water and reading by the fire.  The one room was about 16 feet square.

In tightly closed bottles on a shelf under the counter we found flour, sugar, coffee, tea, rice, noodles, beans, dry milk, split peas and more.  Lots of supplies here, and even a few baggies of spices and herbs.  Several cans of kerosene sat by the wall below a lantern hung on a nail.

The sun beamed in through the open door and squirrels in the tall evergreens scolded and chattered their warnings.  The creek rumbled a constant undertone.

Squirrels had got inside somehow.  They’d torn up a corner of the mattress and knocked a cup off the table to shatter.  I shared the wish to preserve this haven.  With the broom, I tidied up a bit, even dusting off the shelves.  When I lifted pots off the top shelf, two bits of writing paper fell to the floor.  I found more notes under the sink.  It seemed everyone who had been here had left a note for the next people.  Gathering the notes, we began to read, stepping out on the porch for brighter light.  Each entry was in different handwriting, on a bit of paper or cardboard, left by a visitor to the cabin who felt moved to communicate with anyone lucky enough to find the place.

June 15, 1995
Dear Hikers, Climbers, Skiers, etc.  This is my first “social” visit to this exceptional accommodation and wonderful area.  Last year I had a party of five up the mountain on a ski trip–great time.  I’ve spent several summers skiing off the glacier since the first year I stumbled into this place, back in ’92.  I’m glad to see the place is in just the same condition as when I first found it.  Happy camping.  Steve Hayes from Kenai
I pulled a three-legged stool out into the sunshine and read on.

September 26, 1996
A beautiful cheery day.  Jeff O’Conner and Nancy Butler from Fairbanks sure enjoyed the shelter of this cabin these past few rainy days.  I believe I, or should I say we, came to a point of turning toward the light in our life while staying here.
This roof needs more tin.  It would be a shame to let the cabin rot away.  Who owns it, anyway?

June 23, 1997
Greetings, Jay.  Do you still own this lovely cabin?  I stop in every year to see how it’s doing.  Still peaceful, as ever.  Good to be back this way.  If you pass through here, my message is — take care.  Deborah Thomas, Anchorage
P.S. It would be nice to see you again, Jay.

I could imagine the builder now — a young man named Jay.  Deborah had known him and hoped he might be here when she arrived.  Perhaps his life had led in a new direction when two paths diverged in the yellow wood, and he’d be back someday if he could.  The next note set a new tone.

March 14, 1998
We arrived here at this picturesque cabin hidden in the trees, about 8 p.m.  The snug comfort of this shelter is a true blessing, shielding us from the tempest outside. But actually, this hut is a disgrace.  I spent an hour looking for an electric outlet.  Now how are we going to make microwave popcorn?   The real bummer is, the ghetto blaster batteries have gone dead.  And on top of that, my partner forgot tapes for the VCR. But, I guess that will make this more of a wilderness experience.

On a separate sheet, on a different shelf, we found the most recent letter along with a pen and some blank paper for future note-makers.

April 16, 2001
Hi climbers and visitors. We’ve been using this cabin this spring and winter and were wondering who owns it.  If you have any information or would just like to leave a note of your stay or climb, feel free to use the paper I left.   Ruth Koenig, Fairbanks
P.S. I swept and cleaned.  Let’s try to keep the place neat.

We wrote a note of our own and left it with Ruth’s, certain that some future visitor would add to the ongoing story.  As we closed the door behind us, our words lay on the table with a pen, waiting for the next arrival, months or years from now.  Who would come  next?  Would the cabin endure for decades, sheltering fortunate explorers, cared for by each?  In the wilderness, that cabin is important, so we’d no reason to assume anything but respect in Alaska for what it represents — its lifesaving potential, its innocent goodness and its hospitality to all.

We may never return to that secret corner of the woods, but if we are lucky we may find another cabin weathering the seasons in the vast wilderness of the north.

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WHEN YOU GOTTA GO

June 24, 2007

WHEN YOU GOTTA GO    Published in Whose Panties are These? Edited by Jennifer Leo
We were in Yucatan on our way to visit pyramids, a two hour trip. This vacation was my great escape from daily dealings with the disgusting surprises that enliven my life as a rental property manager.
My friend Linda took a seat opposite a dignified Maya grandma in an immaculate traditional dress. I left my stuff and returned to the front of the bus.

“Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” I asked the driver in Spanish.

“Hurry. Three minutes and I’m going.” I ran into the storefront bus station. Mexican rock music blared from overpowered speakers. Families and backpackers waited on wood benches.

The bathroom was filthy, the toilets a tribute to ancient plumbing and the inadequate flush. All were missing toilet seats. The situation presented no problem for this savvy traveler. I thought, “I’ll try that trick I learned in India.” You just stand on the bare porcelain rim, your shoes the only contact, and squat.

Feeling confident, I loosened my shorts. I could handle this, easy. I stepped up with my right foot, then my left. Over the pounding beat and blaring trumpets, I heard a strange groan. The world shifted as if a huge quake shook the very earth beneath me. The universe tipped to the left. My heart raced. The toilet ripped from the tile floor.

I leaped away, pants still down, and fell hard against the locked stall door as the bowl crashed over on its side. A wave of icy slime the color of yellow vomit swept over my sandals and out into the room like Noah’s flood ripping through an Iowa pig farm. While the music blasted, I pictured unspeakable organic compounds deadlier than crap seeping into the grout between the tiles.

I lifted my wet feet in a sort of jig, befuddled as a dog in a dancehall. Was there a number larger than gazillitillion to describe the army of evil bacteria now staging an assault on my bare toes and ankles? And the smell.  Never mind.

Two bare rusted bolts stood like tiny guards beside the hole in the floor. The dead toilet bowl lay on its side near them, an albino mammoth awaiting rescue.

I knew the station manager would burst in and find me, in mere moments. “How did you manage to destroy my toilet?”

“I stood on the seat,” I’d whimper meekly.

“You idiot,” he’d shout. “You stupid Gringa. Have you no culture? Did your mother teach you nothing? You will pay for this.”

I could expect the worst possible treatment — police interrogation, a big fine for destructive mischief, jail time for terrorist activities and betraying the trust of the entire Mexican nation. “We’ll have to call in the army to investigate.”

The bus would be long gone, without me. I’d left my money, my ID, everything with Linda. And she’d never know what happened to me.

Pulling up my pants, I slid the bolt and peeked out of the stall. No witnesses. But I still had to go. The bus driver was probably pulling away at that moment. But when you gotta, you gotta. I whipped out from behind my stall door, slipped into another stall and did my business, air butt style, my feet in the spreading mess. The smell must have reached the waiting room by now. Someone would get curious.

Still no one had come shouting accusations. Now, with one stall between me and the disaster, I could claim I knew nothing. I could lie. “What toilet? What mess?” I’d be dumb not to lie when the yelling started. The band played on.

Sloshing though the deep puddle on the floor, then looking both ways, I held my breath and washed my hands. Still no one came. Should I take five minutes to wash my feet and shoes in the sink? No, better catch that bus.

I checked the waiting room. Despite the 200-decibel sound blast, all appeared calm. The bus sat outside. I raced past the waiting people, wet sandals slapping, and out to the bus.

I climbed the steps in welcome silence. “Sorry,” I said. “But thanks for waiting.” The driver shook hishead, annoyed at the delay. My sandals squished and slurped as I walked along the aisle. I sat down by Linda and could barely contain myself as I tried to tell her what happened. We clutched our bellies, exploding then bit our lips while the other passengers gave us puzzled looks.

I now sat across the aisle from the prim Maya grandma in her elegant snow white embroidered dress with flawless frilly lace. Did I smell something foul? I put my nose to my hands. I sniffed the seat back behind me.

Sneaking slowly nearer, I sniffed the hair of the man in front of me. All normal. Was I having olfactory hallucinations? Something smelled odd and that lady in white knew it was me.

Linda fell asleep, her head resting against the window. The jungle raced by and the whole incident began to take on a new coloration. I didn’t have to call the plumber. I didn’t have to explain my potty technique to the grand inquisitor. If the installer failed to bolt down that toilet with the standard sturdy hex nuts, it was not my problem.   A broken toilet.  Not my problem.

The relief of an apartment manager on vacation bordered on pure childish glee. I’d crash landed a toilet and run away.  The more I chuckled the more that dignified Maya woman kept looking over at me, like I might actually be dangerous.

THE SERENDIPITY OF TRAVEL

June 15, 2007

The Serendipity of Travel

Life is blessed with serendipity and, for me, travel brings out the best of it.  While away from the routines of daily life, we are more open to surprises.  We let life deliver the unexpected.  When something interests us, or sounds good, we are not too preoccupied to pursue it.  On vacation or out there exploring, we are less driven by our schedules and the expectations of others.  We take the time.
The wonderful luck that came with my first travel adventures, fresh out of college, is probably a big factor in making me an enthusiastic life-long traveler.  Shortly after graduation, I took all the savings I’d accumulated while working part time and flew to Paris to meet a boyfriend.  The relationship proved short-term but in the three weeks we spent together that summer,
Dave taught me the essentials of being a happy traveler.
“I’ll show you how to hitchhike like a pro,” Dave declared as we got off the urban bus at the edge of Paris.  “Always make sure there’s a good, safe place for a driver to pull off.”  I swung my rucksack onto my back and followed him down the road.
By sunset, we’d had four very short rides, and stood hopeful just beyond the edge of the developed area.  “This is NOT working out,” I griped.  I was hungry and nowhere did I see a place we could spend the night.
“You have to keep your spirits up,” Dave said.  “Someone will come along.” A little Citroen rolled toward us.  I said a prayer.  The driver stopped.  I was overjoyed.  We ran toward the car.  Dave asked where the middle-aged farmer was going.  Just up the road.  My heart sank.  Dave’s French was better than mine, so he grasped the invitation I’d missed.  “The guy wants to give us dinner and a place to sleep.”
The man took us to an old estate.  We entered down a long lane through the forest.  He was the gamekeeper and lived with his young wife and two small children in a comfortable house adjacent to the stables.  The food was abundant and tasty.  I missed most of the conversation and by ten was too tired to hide my yawns.
“Time for bed,” said our host.  “Come with me.  You can sleep in a special place, since the baron is not in residence.”  He led us by flashlight to the chateau, which had been partially hidden behind the outbuildings.  When the lights came on in the grand entry hall, I was taken aback by the gold, the gorgeous wrought iron rails, the white marble floors. Huge Chinese urns and vases stood on rococo tables.  Mirrors gleamed everywhere. The place was a palace.  We followed, up the curved staircase and down the wide hall.
“Here is your room.”  It was out of a dream, royal splendor from the high courts of France.  “Enjoy your sleep.”
I kicked off my shoes and dug my toes into the thick, brilliantly colored Persian carpets.  “Can you believe this? It’s the royal suite.”
“There’s even a modern bathroom,” Dave called.  “You should treat yourself to a long hot bath.”  While I soaked in the oversized tub, Dave checked out the room and its décor.  We didn’t get a lot of sleep that night but rose happy the next morning.
I stood at the windows, looking down a mile-long alley of lawn with a perfectly straight line of trees on each side.  A small lake gleamed at the far end.  Soon our host appeared.  “Time for breakfast.”  We enjoyed farm fresh eggs, home made muffins and sweet creamy coffee before hopping in the little Citroen for the ride back to the road.
Now THAT was serendipity.   Once in a lifetime, you say?  Never again?  Severally equally amazing experiences occurred during the next year, when I was exploring the world on a minimal budget, picking up new friends along the way and learning far more than I had in any classroom.
With an English friend, I was the guest of the former president in a mansion on the outskirts of Baghdad. We walked the ruins of Babylon and had a private tour of the museum of antiquities, but that’s another story.  More tales could be told of a week spent following a New York travel writer, fluent in Turkish, around that fascinating country.  A Greek student fell in love with me aboard a steamer to Mikonos. Tagging along with a couple of gorgeous Australian beauticians, I enjoyed some of the finest hospitality in Italy.
Wherever I go, I meet remarkable people and discover things I hardly knew exisited.  Just a few months ago, a detour down a gravel road led to the studio of a native Tlingit artist on an island off coastal Alaska.  Not long ago, a courageous push through a doorway left ajar led to the unmarked Paris model agency where some of the most glamorous people alive can be found.
I’ve been seeking serendipity a long time.  The night at the chateau was in the 60s.  In the 70s, a note on a bulletin board led to a cooking job on a little freighter that docked all over the Caribbean.  In the 80s, a personal ad got me a date with a world famous mountaineer who danced like a dream come true.  None of these surprises pointed to a plush life or great career.  In fact, my life has been a bit short on career moves.
My mother said, “I’d hardly call you a success, but you’ve certainly had an interesting life.”  But mom, that’s what I wanted, an interesting life.
I’m not rich, not famous, not brilliant, not the most lovable wife on the planet nor the best mother.  But I have fine husband now, grown children, wonderful friends, and I will always believe in serendipity.   The upcoming trip to Yucatan will be another opportunity to stay open and see what happens.

THE EARTH FROM THE AIR

June 15, 2007

UP THERE –  The earth from the air         1-21

We are flying above the empty center of Greenland.  At the plane window I study a place untouched by time, fractured and empty.  The island is huge, cold beyond my grasp.
The ice is four kilometers thick. If Greenland’s ice all melted, worldwide sea level would rise ten meters.  Has anyone walked on the ice cap or camped in the blue and vacant wilderness?  The unseen air sweeps long scarves of mist round the shoulders of summits.  Down there, the world is pure landscape.  Not one mystic sits in solitude.
As a traveler from a far place, I see in the vast solitude a heart-stopping beauty.  This unknown zone appears like an alien world in some distant galaxy.  It leaves me wondering at the very existence of such a place on earth.  Behind me, a young man says, “It looks like the ice planet from Star Wars.”
And it does.  Brilliant sunshine shapes each curve in snow as pure as a bleached satin sheet, its drapes linking nameless points. The country lies frozen into solid waves.
Glaciers, like vanilla ice cream in a bowl of stone, tumble off the western edge of this small continent.  The ice crashes down into deep sea fjords, carved long ago and lonely.  High above these round-bottomed valleys filled with blue-black ocean, a recent snowfall has sprinkled white flour over rims of reddish rock.

On long flights, when nearly everyone aboard is sleeping or reading or watching a movie, you will find me looking out at the world, tingling inside with a childish delight.   I am a geography fan, and I like my maps alive.  Cursed with this fascination, people like me arrive at their destination exhausted by the excitement.  We don’t sleep like normal humans, when the world itself is spread out below in all its glory.
The video map says we’re just north of Gotthaab, eleven kilometers up.  It is minus 50 degrees outside.  From the other side of the plane, the fjord country appears lit by a star so white it seems it can’t be our own sun.  In a deep, sea-canyon the white scuffs of two motorboats stand out like comets in the darkness of space between steep walls.
It seems I’ve always been fanatic about a good view.  Flying over water for hours and hours at age ten, I gazed through the little window for half the trip, amazed by a land made of puffy clouds.  Once, in all that time, I saw a tiny ship on the dark wrinkled surface far below.
Flying across America at age 19, my nose pressed to the glass all day, I marveled at the shapes of the country — brown canyons of the desert West to the horseshoe curve of Niagara Falls.  Later that same summer, the snows of the Alps rose up to meet us as we lifted out of Geneva.  My fascination with the world seen from above has never slacked.
Now I count coup like a Dakotah tribal warrior, claiming like real victories the places I’ve seen but never touched — Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the Western Aleutian Islands on a flight east from Japan — the green sugarcane  fields of Cuba flying from Lima to Miami.  My eyes found the Fiji Islands beneath a sunset bigger and redder than any bonfire of the vanities.  That evening, the full orange moon rose into the shadow of Earth on the night of a lunar eclipse.
Crossing from Athens to Qatar, we flew over the Empty Quarter of Arabia, all sand and stone and heat.  And Iceland, now there’s a sight, black volcanic earth and white peaks of distant ranges.  The farms spread to the edge of tall cliffs that fall to the cold sea.  It’s a country no place like home.
On a clean June day, flying north to Alaska, every hidden highland pond and every inlet between Seattle and Anchorage drew me into wilderness fantasies of the green forests on the Northwest Coast.  On our way south again, we had the Queen Charlotte Islands with our lunch.
You might guess I wanted to be a pilot. But I got only as far as ground school.  Maybe it’s a good thing they don’t let me fly.  Sitting in the cockpit, I’d find far too many distractions to properly mind my business.  But if ever I’m offered a chance to sit up front, I’ll take it.

HONG KONG’S OUTER ISLANDS

June 15, 2007

Hong Kong’s Outer Islands

During my second visit to Hong Kong, I marvel at the cutting edge architecture, fabulous shops and the incredible density of settlement.  But my resident son assures me there’s far more to his favorite city.   On a Saturday morning, we purchase tickets for an island called Cheung Chau and board the crowded, triple-decker ferry.

As we pull away from the glittering facades of Central district, antique junks and tugs rock at their moorings between sleek hovercraft and jet boats.  Overhead, a 757 streaks away, heading for Singapore or Seattle.  Our fellow passengers lounge, read, nap or entertain their children. The Estrela do Mar, a sleek jet boat, zips away to formerly Portuguese Macao beyond the Pearl River Delta, leaving a trail of white foam to rock a tiny sampan in its wake.

We pass US Navy Destroyer #53, its crew in tropical whites lined up along the rails at every level.  Huge loading cranes top a flotilla of barges, each with Maersk containers stacked to the sky.  Crossing the harbor, I count well over a hundred ocean-going freighters waiting at anchor to do business here, their registries reading like an atlas of maritime ports — Point Villa from Vanuatu, Haixing out of Shanghai, New Harmony of Panama.

At the bright and noisy seafront at Cheung Chau Wan (wan = bay), vendors, poise prim and dignified behind colorful piles of fruit, bubbling tubs of fresh fish and sweet smelling bunches of blossoms.  The air fills with the loud chatter of bargaining.  Shining red rental bicycles stand in lines, ready for day-trippers. Sun-faded photos of available weekend getaway spots fill agents’ plate glass windows.

We walk a hundred meters across a narrow isthmus and pop out on the opposite shore where the tumble of surf smothers village voices.  Here small hotels line the seawall above the sand of Tungwan Beach.  Wandering back along narrow lanes, getting in the mood for the slower weekend pace, we pass the cinema, bank, pet shop, tiny restaurants and shops, beer stalls, herbalists — all cheek to cheek under light cloth awnings that lift in the breeze.

We decide on the 45-minute walk along a hilly trail to Sai Wan, in the southwest corner of the small island.  At the highest point, a large cemetery is packed with elaborate stone markers.  Each grave is inset with a tile photo-image of the deceased.  The Chinese, by tradition, want to rest in a location with ideal fung shui.  That ancient art based on the deeper meaning of landscape and the environment decrees that a hillside with a view of water is a spot where a spirit can remain content.  Families visit their ancestors often, and leave grave gifts of fruit, cakes or eggs.  It’s a fine place for a picnic too, at tables with views as fine as the silent majority enjoy.

From the lane beside the Sai Wan dock, we enter a scarlet inner door to a cool, shadowed temple fragrant with incense.  Tin Hau, goddess of the sea and benevolent protector of sailors and fishermen, sits serene clothed in bright brocaded silks. Her altar table is loaded with offerings of fruit and flowers.  Flames of oil lamps dance before the image while, above, smoke from years of burnt offerings has darkened the rafters and roof tiles.

My son says we might be able to find the pirate cave near the temples.  The famed 19th century brigand Cheung Po-tsai hid out here before he reformed and agreed to help capture other pirates.  We rent flashlights from an elderly woman at the entry and find our own way through a narrow, precarious passage.  I’m expecting a pirate camp, but it’s just a cave.  After ten minutes in a spelunker’s realm I’m happy to pop out into the brilliant daylight again.  We climb up on big rounded boulders to watch the weekend fishermen, holding their bamboo poles above the sweeping waves.

From Cheung Chau Island, another ferry takes us to Silvermine Bay (also known sa Mui Wo) on huge Lantau Island.  The popular beach resort on Lantau draws families and young couples for good swimming and restaurants.  We buy snacks and wade into the cool sea, then jump on a ferry to nearby Peng Chau Island.

Like larger Cheung Chau, little Peng Chau is formed from two high knobs yoked together by an isthmus, but unique to Peng Chau is a footbridge to a tinier isle called Tai Lei.  Peng Chau is quiet, small and intimate with few holiday rentals.  Brightly painted skiffs rock on a gentle swell in the bay, while children play on the beach below Yau Wing Street.  Everything seems scaled to the sweet innocence of an earlier time, including the elegant temple to the sea goddess.

The village in the center of the island spreads both ways over slopes where neatly terraced vegetable farms overlook the sea.   We stop to watch gardeners hauling compost and watering with long-spouted buckets as they call to each other.  Not one weed mars the flawless beds.  The breeze-ruffled rows of tomatoes, carrots and kohlrabi look so well tended I imagine every plant has been given a name. From this tranquility, we gaze past the encircling headlands to one of the world’s busiest harbors.

Back in the village, on the porch of a temple, we discover an ongoing Ma Jong party.  Now, in every narrow lane, we hear the noisy click and shuffle of Ma Jong tiles.  Smacking their pieces onto hard tables with a rich brittle snap, elderly men and women, deep brown and wrinkled by the sun, play an animated game.  Jibes, laughter and paper money pass quickly between them after each frantic round.  Onlookers sit on low stools and shout encouragement or taunts under a whizzing ceiling fan.  It feels as if we’d know everyone here if we stayed a couple of weeks.

In a bakeshop across the lane, a young woman uses shiny tongs to lift fragrant buns into her customer’s bag.  A gentleman who stops in for a chat, in new white running shoes and a very English porkpie hat, carries off a sack of rolls.  Two crones pulling shopping carts stop just outside for a talk punctuated by outlandish laughter and flamboyant gesturing.  Songbirds for sale sing away the afternoon, their cheery din drowned out for long moments by rounds of shrieks and cackles from the boisterous Ma jong table.

After a leisurely meal of fresh seafood, we catch a direct ferry back to Central. The two of us perch on freshly painted white capstans on deck to admire the shimmering sun path, a golden end to the day reflected in our wake.  Crossing our turbulent trail is the evening boat to Macao.
As we power past an unnamed bit of land, my son says it’s one of nearly 300 harbor isles and reefs.   From a smooth cliff face, caves open to a narrow sandy beach as untouched as a remote Pacific paradise.

What a welcome respite for city dwellers these islands are, a sample of the past and a taste of wilderness for those who live their busy lives in one of the world’s most sophisticated and densely populated cities.

RAFTING THE ROGUE

June 15, 2007

RAFTING THE ROGUE
Published in Northwest Travel Magazine

Blossom Bar is a mean run of water. Before tackling these rapids on the Rogue River, rafters pull ashore, clamber high on the rocky right bank, and survey the situation. Guides point out tricks and treacheries of the route, warning novices of unseen peril.
With a good mix of strategy and luck, our raft slides down the twisted left channel.  We careen over a four foot fall, blast into the cauldron with a splash, swing left across the Submarine Killer, zip around Volkswagen Rock, and bounce out into a long run of three foot waves. Everyone’s wet, and grinning with triumphant joy.  Our group’s three rafts stayed upright through the wildest whitewater on the wild and scenic section of Oregon’s famous river.
A few days before Blossom Bar—still dry behind the ears, so to speak—rafting groups assemble at a resort called Galice (ga LEASE) in the canyon country about fifteen miles west of Grants Pass, in the southern Oregon Coast Range. Dozens of professional rafting outfitters begin trips at Galice, and the resort also rents rafts to individuals. After cramming personal gear into the allotted waterproof bags, people gather on the bank for a safety and wilderness-ethics lecture from a professional guide.
On a typical trip, the first innocent morning is spent floating down riffles where turtles snooze on the rocks. A bald eagle may coast overhead. Around a bend, a great blue heron flaps away, croaking a raucous alarm, followed by a belted kingfisher squawking its own warning. Canada geese preen on a beach, studiously ignoring intruders in their private domain.
At noon, the ponderous rafts pull up on shore. Guides open ice chests of food and drink to create a tasty buffet beside the water. Everyone gathers on the sand to savor the meal. The talk brims with laughter.  In the blue sky, a pair of ospreys soars past, keening cries echoing in the quiet. A little gray dipper, the water ouzel, works the waterline, its comical curtsy giving away the plain bird’s identity.
At the bridge at Graves Creek, seven miles below Galice, the road veers away from the river and we enter the Wild and Scenic Area—36 miles of uncivilized country that ends at Watson Creek. This preserve is a rare example of low-altitude wilderness, accessible only by water or by the hiking trail that parallels the river on the north bank.
Not far below Graves Creek, Rainie Falls calls from half a mile upstream. Thundering bass notes hint at what’s ahead. This first class-four rapid sucks the boats ever closer.  Tension mounts.  Rafters exchange worried glances.
On a scale of one to six, class-two rapids are marked by waves two to three feet high with a few risky rocks. They are pure fun. A class six is too rough to risk. The categories in between are rather vague and seem to vary with who’s talking and about which river.
Rainie Falls is a twelve-foot cascade rarely run by the sane. Beside it, part of the flow takes a class four triple stairway then tumbles down the channel. These steps are the most popular route. Fish, fishermen, and the unashamed choose to run the easy class two route to the far right of the river.
Committed wimps can watch from shore while their friends’ rafts tilt over the brink of the first of the stairsteps. Rafts most often dump on the second step. The lucky paddlers fight the pouring current, right themselves, and slip down this semi-easy route. As each raft spins safely beyond the thundering whitewater, the onshore cheering section yips and hollers approval.
Come evening, a camp on a wide beach on the left bank proves the perfect spot for laying out sleeping bags and talking over the day’s excitement.  Once camp is set up and the gourmet hors d’oeuvres have been sampled, a climb up into the woods and rocks is a great way to pass the hour until dinner.
Most rafting companies feature excellent food at every meal. Baked salmon is a favorite for the first night out, while grilled steaks or lasagna might be served the next night, with perhaps a homemade cake for desert.  Afterwards, a few burps of contentment echo through the canyon.  As the sun slips down behind a ridge, people gather close to the crackling fire.
A black bear pops out of a stand of red-barked madrones on the opposite slope.  Conversation stops. The bear looks at the humans. The guide says,”If it wanted to come over here, it could swim that river in ten seconds flat.” Happy campers shudder momentarily at the thought and wonder if the bear will appear in camp after dark.
Perhaps the bears are nearly as well fed as the people on the Rogue. They seldom pay visitors much attention, preferring to saunter down toward shore where willows and alders shimmer in the breeze or to frighten deer out of a thicket.
Abundant wildlife is a predictable highlight of days on the river. In early summer, ospreys dive and come up with fish to carry to nestlings bickering in nests atop tall snags. Some evenings, river otter families entertain their guests with humorous antics.
Life along the water seems peaceful and wonderfully simple. The river is friendly, spiced with a few very exciting spots. During the summer, the Rogue typically flows at a modest 2500 cubic feet per minute. But it can go berserk.
In December of 1964, a flood took it to 750,000 cubic feet per minute. A guide describes how a saddle ridge about fifty feet above the water vanished for days during the rampage. The river rose high enough to flow over it. Squeezed between narrow canyon walls, it has indeed earned its reputation as a rogue.
The Rogue River is world famous and has attracted adventure seekers for decades, some as well known as the river itself. Zane Grey, the Wild West novelist, owned a log cabin visitors can see above Winkle Bar. Grey came to the canyon to write, and set one of his novels at the nearby Cliffs of Solitude.
Cliffs and canyons are the norm along the river’s course through the Coast Range. In many places the bank is compressed mudstone from the Jurassic period. Water erodes it into smooth sculptured fantasies, windowed caves, and deep overhangs that shelter deer in rare summer rainstorms.
Through Mule Creek Canyon the river flows dark green between vertical walls, squeezed into a convoluted channel twelve to fifteen feet wide. Small waterfalls leap off the high brink to plummet into the swirling depths, where small boats that get caught will spin in powerful whirlpools.
A good place for a break after the canyon is the Bureau of Land Management outpost called Rogue River Ranch. The farmhouse and outbuildings dating from 1903, along with their memorabilia, tools, and old equipment, are maintained as a museum and fire watch post. At an archaeological site nearby, researchers sift dirt seeking Native American artifacts. Recent digging yielded stone projectile points ten thousand years old, on view in the house.
The next day rafts glide past Paradise Lodge, a lunch stop for jet boats that come up the Rogue from Gold Beach on the coast, forty miles away. Sitting in neat rows, the tightly packed customers look a bit like grinning sardines, all in identical life jackets.
Not far downriver stands National Geographic Rock, made famous by a cover photo of its twisted tree roots. A couple of hours later happy adventurers arrive at Foster Bar, the end of the line for most tours. A shuttle van and supply truck take guests through the mountains back to Galice. It’s strange to ride in a rumbling van after four days in quietly rocking boats.  Leaving the river behind, a sunburned middle-aged woman declares, “This was such a great trip, I hope I can keep coming back until I’m too feeble to climb into a raft.”

IN THE DEEP HEART OF FRANCE

June 15, 2007

In the deep heart of France
Fall 2003

Every journey has a farthest point, a deep experience of place, a moment when the traveler feels most remote from home, a moment unique to that location.  I used to only identify it on looking back.  “Oh, there it was. Yes.”  Now, I sometimes guess as it happens what will be remembered best.
Though I travel widely, I don’t know France well.  I’d volunteered to go as nanny and knew that with my son’s language skills I’d be in good hands.  Besides being a unique opportunity to get to know my first grandchild and her mother, this October trip proved a real vacation.  Unlike most of my trips, someone else made all the travel plans, solved all the problems and paid the bills.
We’d driven a couple of hours southwest of Paris to the medieval town of Villeneuve, on the Yonne River near Sens. An important church stood here before the Vikings sacked and pillaged all of Burgundy in the eighth and ninth centuries.   In 1163, Louis VII built his regional administrative center across from the church and gave the town its present name of New Town.  We stayed at a delightful inn called the Owl’s Nest, made from four old boathouses fronting the river near the arched, stone bridge.
One morning, to give the parents extra sleep, I tucked my tiny granddaughter into a Snugli sling and set off to explore the ancient lanes of the village.  We began at the stone bridge, where swans and mallards glided among trailing willow branches.  A medieval tower beside the river, like a similar one at the downstream end of the old city’s protective moat, guarded the approach by water.  Heading away from the Yonne, we followed a park-like promenade next to the deep dry cleft that had  for a nearly thousand years been filled with water, below the city walls.
At the back of the town, the big donjon tower still stands guard.  This castle keep of solid rock could shelter most of the early population and some of their animals in time of war.  At the donjon, we turned toward the countryside.  Along the back streets, pursuing my interest in unpretentious gardens, I gazed with pleasure though every fence.  I poked along, my arms around the baby, smiling and exchanging bonjours with the people passing.  The women who worked at home were coming back from shopping at the farmers’ market, carrying loaded baskets on one arm or pulling wheeled shopping bags brimming with fresh produce in the season of harvest.  I imagined the wonderful mid-day meals they would be cooking for their families, who all come home to eat at noon.
Across from the school, we stood a while and looked into the stream that once fed the moat, now a lush watercourse of cress, reeds and shrubs growing wild, a miniature landscape probably unchanged since the first church.  At that point, I knew we were on a search for origins.  At the edge of the town, a highway carries speeding vehicles that seem to belong to the remote future of a place with roots deep in the past.  We waited for an opening and crossed to a grassy path that led up a vale between two rounded hills.
My imagination took over.  We were on a forest path back when Louis VII was young.  In that era, at my age, I’d have been an old crone.  I’d have been known as a plants woman or herbalist, for my delight in wandering the margins of the world picking little green things, plucking at leaves, examining unnoticed flowers.  Like a gatherer on patrol I surveyed the land around me, finding familiar species with slight variations.
Soon, I had pulled together a credible salad to compliment whatever the family hunter might bring home.  Mushrooms of many varieties, crab apples, sloe plums, dandelion, chickweed, wild mustard, scallions, broadleaf plantain — all this for the pot.  And I’d not left the trail.
My path rose past cherry, pear and walnut trees in yards ranging from neatly groomed to abandoned.  The noise of traffic fell away.   In one garden, an old man with white hair had a big bonfire going, burning brambles and pruned twigs in the open among his grapevines, broccoli and raspberries.  France, with its ideal climate, could not be more perfect for growing foods we know.  No wonder the art of eating has reached an apex here.
Now, it was thousands of years earlier, and I belonged to a tribal culture in neolithic times.  I was a gatherer in a time before cuisine, with only Nature’s bounty to claim.  We crossed a narrow paved road, perhaps a remnant of an ancient path out of the valley.  The trail continued up the slope, then ran flat before the next rising section.  If I were on horseback, or in a wagon, my animals would have appreciated a hill road with flat stretches where they could breathe easy before the next steep pull.  Was this intentional?  Would I have thought to wonder if I’d never left the car?
Beyond a steep thicket of blackberry brambles, the hillside opened.  A harvested field curved away to sky at the nearby top of the rise.  Smooth chert with agate and flint stones lay exposed by a plow, rock so fine grained a person could chip out a sharp-edged scraper or spear point as needed.  The baby slept, giving an occasional sigh of contentment.  My pocket was filled with salad makings and I nibbled as I walked.  Ahead stood a row of small trees stepping up a narrow strip of wild grass.
Laying the sleeping baby beside the trail, I climbed up to investigate.   While I gathered windfall apples of a delicate flavor, a green grasshopper watched me from a thistle.  On the trail just below, the child breathed.  A protective instinct rose in my chest.  How could I leave my treasure even for a moment?  In a long ago century, a wolf or wild pig could bring death in seconds.  My imagination ran wild as I hurried back to my sweet innocent baby.
I carried her down a mustard field and back to the narrow strip of pavement, then followed it down.  Vines twined over shrubs, their grapes shriveled in the dry autumn sun.  A green tunnel veered into an overgrown wood.  Along the path grew big lilac bushes and irises gone to seed, pretty plants popular centuries ago and able to survive without care.  What were the dreams their planters brought to this place, and why did no one now claim these fruits of long labor? Like the trace of the hill path across a farmed slope, even more recent lanes tell a subtle tale and offer these little mysteries, invisible to fast travelers.
I looked back to where I’d been, alone on a quiet hillside, gathering from the land like any ancient grandmother.  That was my moment of penetrating connection, linking me to the long history of my own ancestors and to the simplicities of rural life today. There, on byways old as the hills, a new sense of France grew out of her earth.  There I reached back to her beginnings.  From such a France, of hidden life that smiles from forgotten corners, a nation can be built in the mind, a nation that makes sense to me.

THE FLASH FLOOD

June 15, 2007

MEXICO from an old journal

We’d driven into Mexico at Mexicali in the heat of August, with a desert thunderstorm on the southern horizon. This was the adventure I’d wanted to share with my husband since our son was born six months earlier, our summer trip when I could at last offer to my man some of the exhilaration of travel that I so loved.

The desert sunset was glorious over the craggy hills, the plants renewed with greenness from summer storms. After dark we had a spectacular lightning show. With little traffic and only a few drops of rain, we raced along. Our boy was in his bed in the back seat while I napped. All the windows were down, the only source of a cooling breeze. I woke several times, took my little boy in my arms and slept again.

I awoke again as we slowed down.  A line of vehicles, hundreds of cars and trucks had stopped on the right side of the road.  People milled around. There was no accident, apparently. We didn’t know what was going on.  Was this some sort of police inspection? David was impatient and as soon as a couple of big buses had passed in the opposite direction, coming toward us, he went on around the stopped cars. Our baby slept in my arms.

Ahead, a bus plowed through a stream that crossed a low place in the road. In the headlights of the bus and our car, it looked like rushing muddy water about a foot deep. We drove in and made it safely through with no problem. It seemed as if we’d come to the far side as the water grew shallow again. David shook his head. “Chicken hearted Mexicans. That was nothing.” I agreed.

But then we stalled. David said, “Let’s get out and push, before we get run down by one of these trucks. Help me.” I almost dumped the baby into his bed. We both took off our shoes and got out to push. A big truck was coming up fast right behind us. The river was rushed over the road, moving fast and about ten inches deep. I got back in to steer. David jumped up onto the hood and directed the truck driver. I felt the truck bump against the rear of our car. We began moving slowly.

The water grew deeper. My heart was pounding. David screamed, “Left, go left. It’s not as deep.” I felt loose dirt under the wheels as we slid right with the current.  The brown flood was halfway up the door. I imagined the car floating off the pavement and into the black night with Chris and me inside. Spinning in the flash flood, we’d never make it.

For an instant I thought of grabbing Chris and jumping out, abandoning the car before it was too late. But then the truck bumped again and we began moving left. My heart was in my throat. I wanted to scream, “Let us out of here.” My mouth was so dry I could hardly swallow. I held tight to the steering wheel, my foot pressing hard on the clutch.

It grew shallower. I saw bright lights shining in the water and the silhouettes of people sitting on cars and trucks, all yelling or cheering.  I could not tell which.  We were coming out.  We started up the bank, the truck still pushing us, our engine dead.

We were out. I took the first breath in minutes. People were clapping along the roadside.

There was a town up ahead. We could see a neon sign for a motel.  I let out a long groan of relief.  The truck driver continued to push us.   David had asked him to get us as far as the motel, the driver seemed to agree that would be smart.

After we’d gone a couple of blocks, David appeared, running along side. He shouted, “Try to start it.” That seemed like a far-fetched idea. But it started on the second try. I revved the engine. “I can’t believe it started,” I shouted to him over the noise of the truck engine right behind us. “I can’t believe we came through that raging torrent and the car starts.”

I pulled over and stopped the car. We both ran back to thank the driver again.  David called to the driver, “Muchas gracias.” The driver was grinning.  David tried to pay him but he refused money.  We shook his hands and thanked him again with sincere heartiness.

With adrenalin still pulsing through our bodies, we set off for the motel. Our baby was still snoozing, quite oblivious, in his car bed in the back seat.

RAFTING NEPAL

June 15, 2007

TRISULI RIVER TRIP

The second morning on the Trisuli, Nepal’s most popular rafting river, we pushed off early, Belinda and me with three vacationing Israeli soldiers, in a big rubber paddle raft.  The cook team would pack up our camp, load everything into the bus, follow the highway down river and meet us at the lunch stop.
After visiting a number of tour offices in Kathmandu, and talking to other tourists, I’d booked this trip at a very reasonable price.  The company bus, already loaded with supplies and towing an equipment trailer, had picked up the group in the center of town about nine in the morning.
The first day, guests and guides got acquainted and practiced paddling in unison.  That night, sometime around mid-night, our dome tents shook and shuddered.  A storm roared in and we were nearly blown away by a big wind, accompanied by an incredible deluge with lightning and thunder.  All our sleeping bags got wet.  We’d slept late to make up for the wild night, and that meant our breakfast of porridge and tea and fruit was late too.  It was nearly ten and already growing hot when we got on the river.
In the first white water, not ten minutes out, we hung up on a rock, our raft sideways in a roaring current.  Some of us pushed off with our paddles and others pulled at the water until we eventually slid free.  Not far beyond that spot we hit a class five rapid called Upset, and we nearly did.
Ripping into a big hole, we teetered on one edge before the raft fell back.  Someone’s paddle knocked hard across the back of my helmet.  I sat low and took wave after wave of cold water, holding on for my life in the noisy torrent.
Juki yelled and grabbed for Belinda.  Then I saw Belinda in the water, a shocked expression on her face.  She fought to regain her composure in a bubbling swirl.  Before she could grab the paddles held out to her, we were into the next hole, out of control and all of us yelling.  I hooked my feet into a strap.  The raft spun.  Thrown into the side by the water’s force, I braced hard with my legs and tried to do something useful with my paddle.
As soon as we hit a calm spot, the guys pulled Belinda in over the side.  She was in excellent spirits despite being a bit winded, a very good sport.
The sun burned a hole in the blue sky.  Some of the guys leaped in to cool off.  Our guide Sanu, and Juki, one of the Israeli’s, dove in and started wrestling in the water. Sanu, about five feet two, tossed much bigger Juki right into a chilly eddy then graciously reached out to help him.  We heard a roar up ahead and the swimmers quickly climbed back into the boats.
As our raft dove into the churning confusion, a wall of cold water crashed over my body.  We raced along with the heaving white billows, straight for a boulder field, then turned at the last instant to zip past a glistening wet wall of rock.  Sucked over the next brink, we bounced and tossed into a run of big standing waves.  Then it was over.  We floated free into stillness and serenity, and lay back in the warm sun to watch the cliffs float past.  Some time later, Juki shouted and we sat up.  There was our cook team waving from a beach up ahead.  It was lunch time.
The rafts plowed through lots more rapids that day, but none as crazy as Upset.  It was a joyful afternoon of relaxing without a care, sparked by intervals of sensational hyperventilating fun.  I’d started this trip scared of big water, but by the end of the second day could truly savor the crazy stretches, snatching scraps of eternity in those brief moments of absolute fearlessness.  Three days raced by.
At the Mughli Bridge, we changed out of wet clothes in the company bus. The Israeli guys were off to Pokhara, waving as their bus pulled away.  Happy with a wonderful river experience, I slipped Sanu a hundred rupee tip just before he put Belinda and me on a plush bus going to Tandy Bazaar.  He seemed amazed by the money, and incredibly grateful.  Now we were the ones waving goodbye.

KAYAKING PALAU

June 15, 2007

By Kayak in the South Pacific

A horrendous crash startled me from sleep, heart thumping.  I sat up.  In the steamy dark, I was quite blind.  Heavy wind roared through the trees.  Another explosion hit the metal roof of the hut.  Branches cracked.  Drumming rain sent water gushing like waterfalls off the eaves.  At the third terrifying bang, followed by a heavy rolling sound, I guessed that coconuts ripped loose by the wind were crashing onto the corrugated metal.  Splat.  A big one hit the sandy ground — a good time to stay put.

The first night of a solo kayak adventure in the Rock Islands, Palau’s world famous limestone wonderland was, I must concede, not much fun.  My rational mind kept asking the impulsive inner child, “What idiotic notion convinced you this was a smart idea?” Exhausted by the intense humid heat I dozed again on my inflated pad.  Where I woke, the rain had moved on.  A few stars winked between the big leaves.

I had ventured out alone, miles from town, because I yearned for pure tranquility, an absolute escape from demands on my time, from knocks at my office door, from telephone and e-mail messages requesting I solve somebody’s problem.  To sit in the warm shade and read and write and snooze all day, to swim in the tropical sea and smile at the moon — ahhh.  And I craved the sweet floral scents of Eden in the dead of winter.  Because I’d been here before, I knew this place had the ideal ingredients to substitute for the Garden of Earthly Delights, even in the 21st Century.

My bed was a wood platform over a sand floor, my cover a thin sarong. The true luxuries of this trip would be time and silence.  Out here, with nothing to do after dark but to read by guttering candles, sleep came early, as did waking.  It was still dark when I threw back my cover, arose full of hope, and walked barefoot toward the star-lit lagoon.  At low tide the small bay lay empty, like a stadium with a white sand floor.

Clouds blown away, brilliant twinklings out-dazzled the thin crescent moon.  Familiar constellations of the summer evening stood 40 degrees north, to match the morning hour and my equatorial latitude.  My star book pointed out the Southern Cross, a big black zone called the Coal Sack and the sun’s brilliant neighbor Alpha Centauri.   From deep in the region of our galaxy invisible from home, beautiful strangers rose to greet their admirer.

At first light the little island’s feral rooster crowed and woke his hens.  Birds sang to the glow in the east.  Warm tidewater flowed into the cove.  I scrubbed my skin with fine coral sand, rinsed off and went back to dress and sit on a beach log to eat the remains of rice and lentils cooked the previous evening.

While I savored my breakfast, several large fruit bats flapped away over the sea.  A flock of white fairy terns arrived to fish — circling, scolding and diving.  Working the outer cove, two gray herons with needle-sharp bills strutted, jabbed then gulped down small fish.  Far above, a white Tropic Bird with long split tail soared toward a fat apricot cloud.  With a sigh and closed-eyed smile, I greeted the sun.  In the goodness of daylight, it seemed simple to forgive the night its terrors and to let go of each misgiving I’d felt in the tortured dark.  Being here was not such a bad idea after all.

Back at the shelter, comfortable in my backpackers’ hammock, I read and wrote in my journal for hours.  By mid-morning the heat was intense.  Splashing in the breeze might be the perfect cure.  Slathered with sunscreen, I donned my wide brimmed hat to set off on the day’s kayak excursion.  In the Rock Islands, steep jungle-covered bits of land offer an endless labyrinth of delight for paddlers — bays, coves, caves, beaches, secret inlets and marine lakes to explore.

Impac Tours, based in Palau’s only town of Koror, had brought me here with a day trip for students from Osaka.  Their big powerboat sped us eight miles from the city.  Several other businesses also have kayaks for rent.  Impac leases the beach with its sturdy, open shelter where I could sleep.  Tours came daily so if I needed anything or had problems, I could count on help.  That gave me the security to venture farther.

On arrival at the beach, we unloaded plastic kayaks, in bright yellow, red or blue.  The kids had a paddling lesson then we all set off into the mangrove channels.  After our tour of hidden channels and secret saltwater lakes, the friendly Japanese raced away in the speedboat to new sights and left me behind.

Was that only the day before?  Hard to imagine how distant that time seemed now.  After the group left, I’d tied up my hammock in the shade and later set off to paddle around the point.

Unlike the bone chilling waters of the Pacific Northwest, where I paddle my own kayak, Palau’s ocean is tepid and the air is warm, day and night.  I’d spent a happy summer working in Palau several years earlier, devoting weekends to exploring the Rock Islands with new friends and I’d longed to come back.  February was the perfect time to escape the dreary skies of home and immerse myself in a sunny marine wilderness.

Solo adventures are nothing new for me.  My first solitary mountain trip, an overnight in the Sierra Nevada, I made at age 19, and I’ve climbed several peaks alone.  Yes, it’s supposed to be dangerous, but so is riding a bike on any road with cars.  And though a companion has always been welcome, and I often travel with friends and family, this time I wanted to try creating my own schedule.  I wanted paradise all to myself, each decision my own, each moment in time to be experienced, unfolding like a flower.  This trip would be my meditation on the wilderness of solitude, both in the world and in my self.

Depending on the traveler, a solo wilderness trip can collapse into disaster or grow into a deliberate quest with spiritual overtones.  Being an experienced and disciplined outdoors person, I count on time in the wilds to heal all that ails me.  A tranquil natural satori seeps into my soul.  A clean untrammeled place and solitude is all I need.  Even when work has turned me into a Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, three days of peace outdoors is my proven sure cure.

First comes recovery from the pace of the city world, and then reconnection with something very subtle and deep inside, too fragile and too ephemeral to rise to the surface when I am with others.  Time grows immense and days pass undivided.  If an interesting thought flits into my mind, I can follow it down branching paths to new territory of the mind.  It worked for the mystics of the Han Shan tradition, but I prefer bright water and heavenly warmth to the chilly isolation of Cold Mountain.

In addition, Palau offers kayaking about as safe as any place can.  No fear of dumping here.  Inside the fringing reef, the waves are small.  No aggressive sharks, no nasty critters, and no mosquitoes mean a benign paradise.  The local society is matriarchal which brings respect for women, and just Asian enough to defer to those who’ve aged to perfection.  Of all the places in the world where I might do this trip, Palau seemed least likely to cause trouble.

I dragged my boat down the beach, pushed off and grasped the double bladed paddle.  A gusty wind riled the usually placid waters, stirring up chunky waves, but my broad-bottomed craft rocked along.

Singing comes easily when I’m off by myself.  This time, I sang to the fruit bats that lived among steep jungle cliffs.  I’d watched them come in from airborne excursions, back-flap for a full stall, grasp a limb with their feet and swing upside down.  As the swinging came to a stop, the big bats carefully wrapped their long leathery wings around their bodies, forming a snug brown cocoon to keep out the weather.

Around the vertical wall of a point, a beguiling little beach called me in.  Pulling on my water sandals, I was ready for a walk.  Among the coconut trunks, stood a great hill of leaf litter and compost.  A friend had told me to look for these heaps, community incubators built and used by groups of chicken-like birds called megapodes.  As I approached, one of the birds ran off, its bare reddish neck giving it the look of a panicked baby vulture. These odd Pacific fowl warm their eggs utilizing the natural heat of decomposing plant matter, a habit unique in the avian world.

The boat carried me onward, up a protected channel with water the color of turquoise cream, a hue created by a clear, shallow sea over white coral sand.  From the speedboat earlier, we’d seen a low arched entrance to a large inner cove, accessible only at low tide, the kind of secret hide away the explorer in me yearned to enter.  The tide was at its lowest now so I paddled in under the arch.  Inside, high walls shut out the world.

With mask and snorkel in hand, I slipped into the water, let the gentle sea surround me, wash its coolness over my skin and into my hair. The water was clear as air, dancing with sunlight.  After adjusting my seeing and breathing tools, I kicked away above the shallow sea floor, celebrating life in its intricately made hard and soft corals, bright blue sea stars, hot orange sponges, a hundred species of colorful darting reef fish and open areas where large sea cucumbers filtered nutritious debris from sand.  I was not sure, but it seemed populations were not as abundant as I recalled them in past years.

After an hour in Wonderland, I climbed back aboard my kayak.  The silence in the cove worked its hypnotic power.  For a long time, I lay on my back atop the flat-decked boat floating, eyes closed.  Unseen birds called from the forest or from vertical walls of limestone karst rock, that rose from the sheltered sanctuary.

Back at the metal-roofed shelter in late afternoon, I scooped fresh water from the screened rain collection tank (fed by the eave gutters), picked up sticks for firewood and built a crackling blaze in the stone hearth.  To a nice pot of corn meal mush, I added canned tuna and spices.  Happy on a beach log, I greedily devoured my humble stew.  It tasted better than a gourmet feast. In my al fresco eatery the questionable cuisine was accompanied by excellent entertainment.

Out in the cove, a big noisy flock of Noddy Terns dive-bombed skittering schools of tiny leaping fish, harassed from below by larger fish.  Those who live as prey low on the food chain feed the carnivores, and the hunters work as well orchestrated teams to make sure of it.

The next day’s project was a search for the best corner in Eden — an idyllic cove, a perfect scene, a dozen coconut palms, or another of the shelters Palauans use for weekend getaways.  By mid-afternoon, I’d claimed the finest stretch of tropical strand in creation, where tiny waves flopped over on the warm white beach.  If I scouted Hollywood locations, that spot would go in my file as the dreamy setting for a romantic tropical adventure.

Coconuts littered the curving sand, some old and dry and some fresh fallen after the recent blow.  Chosing one that sloshed with liquid, I sat an hour working on it with my small knife. The job takes patience — to slowly peel away the tough husk, drill the “eyes”, drink the sweet milky liquid then smash the exposed woody shell against a limestone outcrop and pick out the meat.  The reward is a thousand-calorie feast – a great lunch, with plenty left for later.

The next day’s paddling led to several more beaches, small isles, a cheerful and chatty meeting with a 10-day kayaking tour out of California and some snorkeling in three more spots.  I appreciated the time with people, but it’s hard to match the simple pleasure of floating over a colorful reef unseen, watching brilliant fish flit through complex coral heads.  I like to spy half-hidden creatures lurking in their coral burrows.  But after checking a number of locations, I was sure something was wrong.

Several years had passed since I’d been in Palau, and though some sheltered areas are as amazing as ever, in many places the reef had changed.  Fields of dead Staghorn coral left me troubled and confused.  Later, I realized that no one in the tourist industry mentions the devastation caused by a recent El Nino event.

While the rest of the western Pacific suffered lack of rain, Palau had an unprecedented 4-month drought that left these isles dying and brown.  I learned that waters warmed to 32 degrees C.  Fragile corals die above 30 degrees.  And with corals destroyed, entire reef ecosystems suffered drastic population reductions.

I missed the colorful crowds I’d seen during my first visit.  Several people assured me that reefs can fully recover if no further impacts occur, but none could agree on the timeframe.  Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere will make all seas more acidic, despite the phenomenal ability of the oceans to absorb insults.  Even a tiny rise in water acidity is a further threat to coral communities and other creatures because they can’t deposit enough of the calcium needed for their hard parts.

Palau remains beautiful, above water and below, despite threats to its future.  But one cannot but regret that things are changing.

The Impac guide had suggested I camp a night on one of the so-called Seven Beaches.  After checking maps, I headed that way.  A couple of hours paddling revealed numerous steep coves and exposed rock points where big pandanus trees leaned out over the sea.  Pandanus look like giant yuccas that want to be palms.  Their mushy fruits are edible, in a pinch.

My first landfall at the seven beaches looked terrific.  Stone arms enclosed a tiny soft-sand cove, and offshore a mini island stood like a green mushroom with undercut shoreline.   I explored the flat jungle back of the beach, in search of a tent spot.  At the sound of footsteps, I froze.  A monitor lizard at least four feet long scampered off, its tail dragging like a snake behind it.  Recovering from an adrenalin rush, I imagined waking up in my rainproof, bug-proof zip-up tent, this thing having gnawed its way in to stare into my eyes and do pushups on my chest.  Never mind that monitor lizards are quite shy.

The sun moved down the western sky.  No way I’d camp in lizard land.  Time to make a decision.  The white line of a beach called to me over the water.  Halfway across the deep channel, it was obvious I’d picked the wrong time be to out there.  Dark, choppy water rushed to the right at a fast clip.  My top speed was barely faster than the in-flowing tide.   This was a major battle, and I had no choice but to fight it.  About sunset, I coasted into the far shore.  Grateful to arrive with no consequence worse than burning shoulder muscles, I dragged my red kayak up Neko Island’s virgin sand.

Among dry leaves, beneath spreading trees,  coconut crabs the size of salad plates skittered off, waving claws as big as my hand.  They vanished into burrows.  Starved, my first thought was how good crab would taste, but I hadn’t a clue how to catch one without losing blood.

Ahead, two spacious structures with screen walls and doors, and plenty of sleeping platforms, looked as if they might have once been part of a kids’ camp.  Why would people abandon such a gorgeous spot?  Maybe some political dispute.  Their business.  I moved in with no further questions.

Wearing only a cotton sarong, my evening stroll was a botanical tour of amazing plants.  Long Scindapsus vines and Spleenwort ferns, mere houseplants at home, grew lush.  Little elf gardens sprouted from the soil, water and moss caught among the convoluted stems of strangler figs, their trunks encircling graceful palms.  The nearly flat island had enough soil that the exotic jungle trees were huge.

The giant crabs wandered around ignoring me, unaware of my craven desires.  Dinner that night was a bowl of barley, instant black beans and a dessert of what remained of my lunchtime coconut.  A second coconut from the lizard’s island kept me busy until my candle burned low.  All husked and ready, I left it unopened on a picnic table, for the next morning.  During the night, huge rains and big blows woke me, but I slept through most of the mayhem.

At dawn, I was enthusiastic about first chore — to gather wood to boil tea water on an open fire.  As I dropped my load of kindling in the fire pit, I saw the my husked coconut lay on the ground.  It must been blown off the picnic table.  I bent to rescue it and noticed a large hole I had not carved, around one eye.  Inside, a dozen little hermit crabs were feasting.  They won first prize of the morning, a free flight to the nearby compost heap.

To assuage my disappointment, I’d need another plant walk, this time with my sketchbook.  After lingering to examine and draw the big leaves and voluptuous blooms of overhanging trees, I threw off my sarong and waded into the cool water of the bay to float on my back for an hour in primal freedom.  Beguiled by cloud dramas, watching the parade of exotic birds, I voted for the simple joys of nature.  My mind explored creative channels I’d only hoped for back home — new ideas for work and for attacking social problems, inspired events to organize, clever inventions, fun home upgrades, future trips, sculptures to make, stories to tell.

The day came to return to town.  Impac tours had agreed to meet me at a small, sandy isle.  As I arrived, a group of brown children ran down the beach, very interested in the kayak.  I offered the paddle and they played with my boat while I and their friendly parents watched and chatted.

One advantage of visiting a former American protectorate like Palau is that nearly everyone speaks English, along with their intricate island language.  It’s a small community, only 17,000  in the whole island group, and we knew some of the same people. The women invited me to join their picnic where, along with the fresh sashimi made from meat of the giant clam, I had my first taste of fruit bat.

Back in Koror, I returned my boat and checked into a hotel, excited about having a shower.  As hot water hit my skin I succumbed to the most miserable itching fit of my life. That night was torment as the incessant need to scratch jerked me from sleep to the brink of insanity.

The next day at the clinic the diagnosis was chiggers, tiny insects that burrow under the skin, called Kerkaard in Palauan and common in parts of the U.S.  The nurses had seen few cases but offered a dose of sympathy and laughing suggestions I use insect spray next time I putter around in the jungle for hours, wearing nothing but a loose sarong.  The doctor prescribed a killer chemical and a super strength itch medicine that cured my problem.  The chiggers almost certainly explain why no one uses those fine abandoned shelters.

Next time, and there will be a next time, I’ll avoid the chigger island where the crabs ate my coconut, and visit dozens of others.  As for difficulties, I’m convinced anyone willing to practice camping and paddling for a few seasons and ready to pay attention in a new environment can enjoy unaccompanied adventure in Palau’s tropical wilderness.

Of course, only seekers more serious than I can expect to achieve permanent satori or nirvana in a week.  But even unenlightened mortals of modest self-discipline can come close, for a while.