A Quintessential Garden: Jardin, Colombia


Enjoying tintos in Jardin's main plaza

Enjoying tintos in Jardin’s main plaza

What I love about Colombia – or, the Colombia that I saw last month – is its authenticity.  During my three-week trip I found relatively few places that had been gussied up for tourists, or that were overrun by them.  At least, not yet.  Instead, I saw and experienced life as it is for everyday Colombians going about their normal lives, rather than concerning themselves with serving and pleasing visitors from other countries and cultures.  I’d like to describe one example:  Jardin, an attractive Andean town in southern Antioquia (in the same department as Medellin) on the northern edge of the coffee growing region.

With a population of fewer than 20,000, it doesn’t stand out on countrywide maps.  Nor, is it in the Lonely Planet guide (I’m repeating an oft-remarked accolade here).   All the more reason for me to bring my small group of ecotourists there on our tour to natural areas in the central Andes and Caribbean coast.

So, what is Jardin is all about?  In one word: coffee.  Producing, selling AND drinking coffee.  In fact, within our first hour there, we received a presentation on coffee-growing and preparation, viewed a video, and, of course, smelled raw and roasted beans and tasted some brew.  Our consensus:  well, the jury is still out…  If caffeination upon arrival wasn’t enough to convince you of coffee’s import, one only needs to take a look at Jardin’s main plaza.  It is packed with groupings of small wooden tables and simple wood chairs with leather seats and backs, each of which is a separate café with its own color scheme.  When you scan the square from above, as we did from the second story balcony of our hotel, you see blocks of orange and green, red and yellow, or blue and white.

Cafe by the church

Cafe by the church

These cafes are certainly not just for show.  All day long and far into the night, locals sit and sip, chatting with family, friends and neighbors as they drink their tintos (small cups of black coffee).  Some, including the wizened, cane-carrying old man in a grey poncho, take special pains to maximize their comfort by tipping the small upright seats so that that they balance on two feet against a wall (my mother would be aghast!).   And, a woman I spoke to when buying bus tickets told me that in Jardin, “Madrugamos para tintear.” (We wake up early in order to drink coffee.)  I love it that they’ve turned the word coffee into an active verb!

Why, other than the caffeine, would one want to hang out in Jardin?  Well, the town is charming, and very colonial.  Its plaza is dominated by a neogothic church made of brown bricks with white mortar and tall spires covered in aluminum.  And, the rest of the buildings, whether business or residential, are white with brightly colored doors, window frames and second story patios.  Balconies overflow with hanging flowers, and the streets are clean and well-cared for, a sign of local pride.  Surrounding the town, which sits on a mesa, are green hills covered by trees, coffee plantations, pasturelands and farm crops.  Trout ponds fed by cool, free-flowing rivers abound – thus the preponderance of the fish on local restaurant menus.

A main street in Jardin

A main street in Jardin

And, for those of us who like to pray, enjoy nature and/or walk through the countryside, a 5-minute cable car can transport you to an adjacent hilltop where a Jesus, carved in white stone, blesses the masses.  While I only qualify for only two of the three aforementioned reasons, I took the gondola to enjoy views of the village and its surrounding hillsides, and then stroll back leisurely looking a scarlet-rumped tanagers and other avian delights.

One of the other highlights is the Cueva del Esplendor, a semi-enclosed cave with an opening in its roof.  What makes it so splendid?  The gushing, sunlit waterfall that pours through the hole into a shaded pool, perfect for swimming in if you can stand the cold.  This natural attraction is about 12 km from town, and is accessed from a finca (small farm) owned by the family of one of Jardin’s most gregarious residents – Jaime, a buoyant middle-aged man in a well-worn striped straw sombrero.  He’s the type of person who talks to everyone as if he’s known them for ages and often seems a bit tipsy (though I believe that’s just his manner…).  We found him at the base of the cable car after asking the giggly staff at our hotel about a guide for our hike to the cave the next day.

La Cueva del Esplendor

La Cueva del Esplendor

Jaime was more than happy to help us, trying at first to convince us to ride his horses even though we said we preferred to walk.  A bit of salesman so, I admit, not a perfect example of the authenticity I noted elsewhere in town, but he was a man of his word.  He offered us the services of his 20 year-old son Sebastian for the six-hour hike the next day, secured a Willy Jeep to transport us, and engaged his wife to prepare fiambre for us to take along for lunch.  Never mind that we weren’t actually sure what fiambre was…

The hike started at the finca, where Jaime’s family had dairy cows, a small plantation of gulupa (one of the many edible and delicious passion fruits), and horses to rent.  The 6 km (each way) trek took us up a short steep hill, across pastures with views of hazy green mountains, across a river or two, and eventually into a dark forest.  Along the way, we watched yellow-tailed oropendolas fly in and out of long hanging basket-like nests and identified several migratory warblers, some of which will soon be arriving in my backyard in Maryland.

Orange flowered plant in caper family

Orange flowered plant in caper family

And we argued over a bright orange flowering shrub related to capers – which (in case you didn’t know) are actually pickled flower buds – until we had to assign all of our attention to the steep descent into the forested river valley.  After rock hopping across the river a couple of times, we arrived at the dark atrium of the cave – a temple of sorts, its walls carpeted in lush green vegetation and its altarpiece the sunbathed waterfall.

What more could we ask for?  Only the fiambre, the Antioquian meal for those who need

Fiambre

Fiambre

sustenance when miles (or kilometers) away from a kitchen:  a chicken leg, hard-boiled egg, mashed potatoes, boiled potato, yucca, and plantain on a bed of rice, all wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with a string.  It forms a self-contained packet, and is a perfect, albeit carbo-loaded, meal take along on an excursion.   In fact, even after the hike back to the finca, the ride to Jardin, and a subsequent walk to experience noisy and brilliantly red, grey and black Cocks-of-the-rock on the edge of town, we still felt well nourished.  The local trout on our dinner plates was just icing on our cake of authenticity.  As was the free, all-you-can-drink coffee in the silver urn in our hotel lobby, the tastiest in town, in my humble opinion…

Chairs of Jardin

Chairs of Jardin

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Day One in Colombia: I’m Keen on Medellin


Woman with mirror, by Fernando Botero

Woman with mirror, by Fernando Botero

On the first day of my recent trip to South America I found myself in some unusual positions.  I caressed the shiny butt of a rotund woman who was glancing at herself in a hand mirror.  I floated in mid-air above hundreds of red brick homes perched on the hillside while gazing at three large, fearsome, black boulders that house a neighborhood library.  And, I walked on a pre-Hispanic road nearly 7000 feet above sea level, as a local guide recounted its history as a major trade route for gold and salt mined nearby.

I had started the day eating yellow corn arepas with uchuva jam (also known as tomatillo – of the genus Physalis, the same family as tomato, potato and eggplant), and ended it in one of the trendy restaurants in the leafy neighborhood of Poblado.   While I can’t speak highly of the Lebanese cuisine I ordered, the trout at our table was a welcome harbinger of many tasty fishes to come during the two-week ecotour that I organized for a small group of nature-lovers/biologists.

I was in Medellin, Colombia, once the capital of drug cartels, but now one of three most innovative cities in the world (per an Urban Land Institute survey).   It’s highly livable, clean, strong in education, booming economically and culturally, and has a perfect climate.   Even its nicknames – the City of Everlasting Spring and the City of Flowers – suggest growth, prosperity and tranquility.   Its people, the paisas, are rightfully proud of their city for its many cultural centers, public spaces, bustling commerce, and prime location in the Aburrá valley at 1500 feet above sea level.

Cable car and library, Medellin

Cable car and library, Medellin

One of the city’s most praiseworthy features is its public transportation system.  It has a modern, very popular Metro system that has reduced CO2 emissions tremendously; three aerial cable car lines that reach even the poorest barrios; a bike-sharing program, and a Sunday Ciclovia (where streets closed to cars and open to bikes, roller blades, walking, etc.).  And, there are large well-maintained public parks, and safe, well-patrolled streets.  All of this I experienced in our scant 24 hours in Colombia’s second largest metropolis.

While we could easily have stayed longer, we had many other fish to fry (and to consume) on our tour of Medellin, the coffee-growing area to the south, and Cartagena, an historic colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  However, before I lead you away, I owe you some explanations:  the oversized derriere that I found myself fingering was a sculpture

Ice cream vendors in Parque de las Esculturas

Ice cream vendors in Parque de las Esculturas

by Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist renowned for his paintings and sculptures of voluminous people.  It was downtown in the Parque de las Esculturas, which also features brightly dressed ice cream vendors, purveyors of straw hats, local families out for a stroll, and very few foreigners other than us.  My aerial encounter was aboard the cable cars on our way to Parque Arvi, one of the newest and largest parks in the department (i.e., state) of Antioquia.  And, the ancient trade route traverses the park.

So, there was Day One of my three-week Colombian Adventure of 2013.  This is only the beginning of what I have to say.  I will write more, but (thankfully) won’t subject you to a day-by-day account.  Instead, I will write around several different themes (many yet unrealized), and do so sporadically.  Be patient and stay tuned.  Colombia is definitely a country worth learning about, as well as one to be visited sooner rather than later.  Why?  Stay tuned, I repeat, as I expound on my two-week ecotour, as well as the additional week that Eileen and I spent vacationing on two Colombian islands in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

Downtown Medellin

Downtown Medellin

(Did you think you had caught an inconsistency in my writing – re the length of my trip?  If so, thanks for your careful reading.  I’m honored that you’re following along with exactitude, and hope you’ll come back for the fish stories to come.)

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Awed by Joy Generated by My Third Marriage to the Same Woman (and a Personal Primer on Marriage Equality)


Our Jewish wedding, with our ketubah (Jewish marriage contract)

Our Jewish wedding, with our ketubah (Jewish marriage contract)

On New Year’s Day, my wife Eileen and I received so many congratulations and expressions of good will that I felt like we had just gotten married.   In fact, we had – and for the third time, no less.  We’d held two wedding ceremonies in 2011 – one in Washington, DC, where same-sex marriage has been legal since early 2010, and then a traditional Jewish wedding in Maryland.  This time, however, there was no ceremony; no exchange of vows nor signing of documents; no blessings over wine nor stomping on wine glasses.

This wedding occurred quietly, with the gentle tick of the clock, at the moment the date changed to January 1, 2013.  Same-sex marriage had just become legal in the state of Maryland, and our DC marriage certificate would now be recognized in the state we live in.  How wonderful it felt!  It was time to celebrate.  Of course, we had already rejoiced on Election Night when the votes came in indicating passage of the referendum to uphold the Marriage Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012.  And eight months earlier, we had partied with Governor Martin O’Malley after attending the bill signing ceremony.  But this time, we wanted to celebrate with our close friends and neighbors.

Our wedding, with the Washington, DC marriage certificate

Our wedding, with the Washington, DC marriage certificate

So, we threw a party, an Open House, on New Year’s Day.  What surprised me – at this gathering as well as beforehand – was the high degree of enthusiasm generated by our newly recognized status.  It felt like we were our friends’ poster children for marriage equality.  We are their living example (should I call us a live specimen? J)  of why gays and lesbians should be able to wed each other.  I have no problem with this.  In fact, I enjoy the attention of being what they consider trailblazers.  It’s just that I don’t feel I’ve done anything cutting edge.  In fact, my coming out and my decision to marry my wife have been relatively easy for me because of all the LGBT advocacy of thousands of people before me.  And, on a personal level, because of my friends’ and family’s support.

You ask how I’ve felt the love and encouragement?  Here are a few examples.  After Election Day I received emails from friends across the country saying they were thinking of us when the heard results of the Maryland vote.  On the day the law went into effect, we were showered with wine, flowers (first time I’ve ever received a bouquet of flowers via FTD!), cards and kisses.  Not only that, when the Washington Post printed a photo of the Governor at the bill signing, Yours Truly were in the background.  Alas, had we known that we’d be on half a million breakfast tables on January 1st, we’d have looked up a few seconds sooner.  [I guess we’re not such good poster children, after all…]

Photo in Washington Post on 1/1/13:  Gov. O'Malley signing the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012

Photo in Washington Post on 1/1/13: Gov. O’Malley signing the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012

I send thanks to those of you have offered such warm words and gestures.   You are my heroes, even while I (or we) seem to be yours…

And now, a note to anyone who questions the fanfare:

While writing the above, I realize that the majority of Americans, including many Marylanders, could care less about the change in our marriage law.  Some don’t know about it, and most will not be affected by it.  Understandably so:  they’re straight so it doesn’t pertain to them; they don’t know people who want to marry and couldn’t or still can’t, if they live in the any of the 41 states that don’t allow same-sex marriage; they’re gay and never planned on getting married; or they just don’t realize the importance of having the freedom to marry anyone you choose.

If you’re in the latter category, I’ll share a few reasons why this freedom is one worth fighting for, why I and thousands of other Marylanders spent many hours on the phones and in the street campaigning for marriage equality.  Under this law, we now receive many of the legal benefits that other married couples in Maryland have, including being able to make health care decisions about our partner if she is not able to; tax-free inheritance of property when one of us dies; and joint health insurance coverage on Eileen’s health plan (which, in our case, did not come without much persistence).

More importantly, it means that we can now shed that inkling of ambiguity about our marriage – that feeling that our matrimony is not as valid as those of our heterosexual friends.  For even though we stood in front of a rabbi and nearly 100 people on May 1, 2011 and stated our commitments to love and care for each other “’til death do us part” (or something to that effect), we were seen as different from most other married couples.  Our commitment was not deemed legitimate by the state.  In effect, it was considered second class.  [Of course, it still is in the eyes of the federal government.  But we have high hopes that this will change in the upcoming Supreme Court session when the Defense of Marriage Act is addressed.]

Most importantly, marriage equality is a step towards ensuring equal rights for all Americans – and eventually, all people.  It’s an official statement that marriage is a gift that anyone, no matter her gender preference, should be able to partake in and receive the legal and economic benefits of.  In short, LGBT people should have the same rights as all Americans.  Amen, I say (while realizing the irony of using a word appropriated by religious bodies, some of whom are opposed to all I have said…).

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Offering Medical Care in the Amazon: My Interpretation


Tamiahurcu village in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Bhaskar Mitra photo)

Deep in the jungle where there’s no running water, where mysterious bugs leave big red welts on your elbows even after you covered yourself with insect repellent, and where you’re lucky if there’s a flush toilet within walking distance, doctors are doing surgery.  Their patients lie on elementary school desks or makeshift tables in an un-walled room covered by palm thatch, and the rain beats down a couple of feet away.   One man has two cysts extracted.  A woman has an ingrown toenail removed.  And a third patient opens his mouth wide so the internist can reach in with forceps to yank out a loose molar.  No one screams, no one questions what the doctor says or does.  Instead, the patients accept their diagnoses, offer nods of thanks, and quietly take the small bags of pills handed to them at the makeshift pharmacy consisting of grey plastic tubs and battered suitcases.

The Pharmacy

I ask a sad, young Indian woman where her pains are, and whether the burning in her stomach is worse before she eats (yes, she answers) or after she eats (again, she says yes).  I lean in close, trying to hear her soft voice, the one that admits that it hurts her when she urinates, that she’s got headaches and dizziness, that she’s worried about her protruding belly button.  Her belly is round, holding her ninth, yet unborn baby.

Mother and child (Bhaskar Mitra photo)

I watch a wizened old man grimace as the doctor squeezes the his shoulder and upper back, tender after 60+ years of laboring in his cleared patch of forest, swinging a machete, planting stalks of yucca, lugging heavy sacks of plantains from his farm to his home, over an hour’s walk away.   He indicates that he has pain all over his body, from his neck down the length of his legs.  It keeps him awake at night.

Dr. Craig doing surgery

I am talking to these people, and listening to their tales of pain and woe, because I am their interpreter.  I am the bridge between them and the (mostly) American doctors who I’ve joined up with in the Ecuadorian Amazon on a medical brigade organized by Timmy Global Health, a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to healthcare around the globe.   We are providing basic medical care and medicines to indigenous Quichua communities in the rainforest, hours  away (by car) from the nearest health clinic or hospital.  Because I speak Spanish, I help villagers communicate with our doctors, who wait in their blue scrubs as I establish what their ailments are.  When a Quichua interpreter is required (especially for the older women), the doc and I sit together, listening to a string of guttural sounds interspersed with occasional Spanish words.  Soon,

Abi, Dr. Dorothy and patients (Bhaskar Mitra photo)

sense will emerge.

We help them with their illnesses and their pain for we can appreciate what they feel.  But, I note that not everything they tell us makes sense.   We are from different cultures, and while bodily symptoms are common to us all, customs, traditions and beliefs are not.  Two examples illustrate this.

Many of our patients complain of headaches and dizziness.   Some have dry, itchy skin.  Others have cramps and/or problems urinating.  These are symptoms of dehydration.    I ask them if they drink much water, and they inevitably say no.  How much do they drink?  Two glasses of liquid per day, they respond.  And one of those is often guayusa tea, a stimulant made from rainforest holly leaves.  A cup of guayusa in the morning contains more caffeine, which is a diuretic, than brewed coffee.  Not only that, but men and women alike spend most of their day doing manual labor – hiking to and from their garden plots, swinging a machete, planting yucca and harvesting crops – in the hot sun.

Do they take breaks and rehydrate?  No, they say.  At first I wonder why not, but then it becomes clear.  All of their lives, they’ve been told not to drink the water, that it’s bad for them.  That’s because their water comes from the local river or spring.  It is not filtered or processed in any way, and is full of unhealthy parasites.  They do not know, or do not want to spend cooking fuel or firewood, to boil their water to make it healthy to drink.  So they avoid imbibing the very liquid that’s essential for healthy bodies and minds.  Sure, it makes sense from this perspective, but not if you want to live a long and more comfortable life.  What seems so obvious to us has not been part of their belief system.  We counsel them to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day, and hope that they will consent.

Waiting patients in Tamiahurcu

In the village of Lushianta, most of our patients are women, pregnant women carrying their youngest babies in slings across their belly.  They enter the doctor’s examination area (a sectioned-off area separated from others by hanging bed sheets) with their toddlers, adjust their load, and sit down on one of the wooden chairs set up in a tight circle.  I ask them how many children they have.  They answer 8, 9, 6….  I venture to question one young woman  further.  Her ninth baby in is utero, and I ask how many children she thinks she’ll have.  I expect the usual answer, the one I’ve come to expect of experienced mothers in the U.S., Ecuador and most other countries:  “This is my last.  I promise – my last.”  But, no.  This young woman says, “Me faltan cuatro.”  I need four more.  She’s telling me that she won’t be satisfied until she has twelve children.  It turns out that she’s not the only one.  Later I meet another woman who already has her twelve.

I fear for these babies.  What will their futures be?  They are being born into a culture in which there is no realization of the economic costs of children.  It is a society where you build your house out of wood that you harvest yourself; where your diet is composed of rice, yucca and plantain (and sometimes eggs, chicken or fish) – i.e., crops you can produce yourself on infertile, tropical forest soils; where there’s virtually no place to spend money; and where basics of clothing, dishware, school supplies are donated to you by outside agencies.  But, it is a society that is changing, where surviving off the land is not enough.  The natural abundance of the forest is diminishing; climate change is beginning to affect productivity; oil production is encroaching on tribal lands; and electricity and Internet have just made it to these remote Amazonian villages.  The Quichua we visited will need money to live on, and with more children, they will need more dollars (Ecuador uses U.S. currency).  And as we help them improve health care, fewer children will die young – negating a traditional reason for women to have many babies.  These indigenous people are living at a moment in time when the past and the future are colliding.  Thus, the present makes little sense.

New godmothers and godsons

Regardless of what’s rational, the opportunity to use my Spanish as a volunteer on a Timmy brigade offers me many emotional rewards.  They emerge at various moments of the weeklong trip:  during the personal, and sometimes intimate, conversations I had with our Quichua patients; when watching members of our brigade kick around a soccer ball with children on a grassless field; by participating in a baptism where two members of our brigade became the godmothers of two local boys; in knowing that the care and medicines we distributed will improve lives; and by feeling the quiet appreciation from those with little access to healthcare or other comforts that most Americans take for granted.  And, I – someone who has never been much of a caregiver – feel like I have actually nurtured people in need.  All because I happen to be good at languages…

P.S.  I highly recommend the work that Timmy Global Health does, and encourage you to consider donating to them or, better yet, joining one of their future brigades!  And, vote for them on Facebook.

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Vacationland is Traditionland (with tweaks) – Part 2


White elephants for sale on fair day

Phew!  The annual Rosh Hashanah tradition is being upheld.  Every year I fret that it won’t happen, that my friends on Capitol Hill (Washington, DC) won’t host their post-services potluck lunch.  But they do – the invitation arrived yesterday.  Though this year they’ll be holding it the day before, a Sunday, to give us more time and space.  No matter.  Like all good traditions, tweaking is allowed.   The point is that its effect will be the same:  a reassuring and a welcome intermission amidst a constantly busy and changing world.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the traditions we keep at our summer home in Maine.  There were so many that I decided to split my post into two.  Previously, I wrote about some customs that I, and my brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces continue year upon year.  This time I’m expanding the circle to our neighbors – other families on our island and along the Maine coast.  I could probably carry it even further to New Englanders, in general, because the region – one of the first parts of the U.S. to be settled by non-indigenous people – is remarkably tradition-bound.  However, that will be a future blog or, better yet, a topic for you, my readers, to comment on.

After all these many summers spent the island, I know my neighbors very well.  In fact, because we return every year, I’ve known many of them my entire life or, if they’re younger than me, all of their lives.  We greet each other the same way each summer:  “How was your winter?”  “Your kids have gotten so big.” “How long are you here for?”  And then, “We have to get together for a walk/dinner/tennis game/boat outing” – whatever it is that we do each summer with those particular people.  And, aside from our activities in common, they tell me about their own island customs – certain walks through the woods, beachcombing along their favorite section of shoreline, making their once-a-year Boston cream pie, or picking cranberries from their secret patch.

Fair day – working at the crafts table

At the fair, an annual event to raise money for the island’s Ladies Aid Society, the community joins together to organize a variety of sales and activities, each taking place in its own spot on the lawn or in the buildings around the community center.  There’s the white elephant sale (where the same items often get recycled year after year); the table with fresh produce and island calendars; the barn with baked goods (including Marilyn’s famous fruit-topped shortbread); the hot dog and hamburger stand; scooped ice cream (with blueberry ice cream, of course!); face painting and fishing for toys behind a curtain for the kids; races for all ages; and a raffle of gift certificates to the general store, tickets for the ferry, or island-made art.  Every year, the same people staff each table or event.  We always know who will ring the opening bell at 10:30 am, who will be selling the cookies, pies and muffins; who will be hawking costume jewelry, and who will preside over the three-legged race and water balloon toss (though this year, there was a tweak in the routine).

Getting ready for Wimbleberry

In mid-August, there’s the annual tennis tournament, known as Wimbleberry, in which everyone is urged to play, no matter whether you’re 6 years old or 88, no matter if you’re a tennis pro or you play just two weeks a year.  We always have to wrangle up enough women for the mixed doubles, and it’s the same three or four of us who set up the ladder using the random-selective method to ensure that teams are roughly equal.  In spite of the fact that we know that David is going to win the men’s matches and mixed doubles….  We play by the same rules each year, but bend them accordingly to satisfy the idiosyncratic needs of each of our tennis club members.  No matter whether we’re able to finish the tournament (due to rain, injury or other obstacles), we hold a potluck cocktail party at the same house (with very occasional exceptions due to extenuating circumstances) on Sunday evening.  The two Dicks always wear their 1960s red plaid suit jackets, and Cindy always brings the most popular hors d’oeuvres of the evening.

Trail sign in Acadia, indicating name change

When I go to nearby Acadia National Park, I find tradition there, too.  I meet other families who spend summers in the area and are regulars on the park’s trails.  Sometimes our conversations become competitive.  A statement such as “I’ve been coming here for 32 years” is often met with a response like “My family has been coming since 1948.  We’re now fourth generation.”  And while on my annual hike and swim on Sargent Mountain this year, I came upon a sign that indicates just how tradition-bound we Mainiacs are.  It’s a National Park Service sign that starts with a bold headline, “Attention Hikers,” and explains that some of the trail names have been changed.  As a result, signs and maps might differ from each other.  It makes sense to warn visitors of inconsistencies, but the implication is also that hikers who have been using these trails for many years (using well-worn maps) shouldn’t get bent out of shape because their favorite trail is no longer called the Asticou Trail (rather, now it is the Asticou & Jordan Pond Path).   The Park is telling us that what’s long been true for us is now being tweaked.

I won’t be lost without all the samenesses and customary ways of times past, but I do find that maintaining certain traditions that have served us well, and that continue to serve us, are worth celebrating.  These are just a few examples from my book of Maine tricks.  What are some of the traditions that reassure and nourish you?

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Vacationland is Traditionland – Part 1


Welcome to Maine sign

I apologize for my blogging silence the past couple of weeks.  After spending nine days in Maine, I was on the road again in Utah and southern New England.  I’m home now, after attending a writing workshop where I was encouraged to just “shut up and write.”  The instructor wanted us to tell our inner critic – the monkey mind (a Buddhist term implying a restless, indecisive, unpredictable mind) – to be quiet.  She told us to write daily for ten minutes or more, without stopping.  I’ll admit that I’m not good at writing without simultaneous editing, but I’ll work on it.  In the meanwhile, here’s this week’s non-stream of conscience narrative.

When I’m in Maine, I’m constantly amazed at how tradition-bound we – that is, people who routinely spend our summers there – are.  I notice the preservation of longstanding customs within myself, my family, neighbors on the island we live on, and with others who regularly spend at least part of the summer there.  Where?  In the state that currently proclaims its identity with the tagline, Maine:  The Way Life Should Be.  That, in itself, implies long-term commitment and constancy, no?

My family has been going to an island off the coast since before I was born.  In fact, my father discovered our “paradise” in the 1940s when visiting a college friend, and he insisted on returning, first just with my mother and then with the rest of us.  Once initiated, there was no turning back.  We bought a house and have gone ever since.  I’ve been there almost every summer of my life, sometimes for the entire summer.  Only twice, when in my 30s, did I miss a summer; that’s because I was living overseas.  In late August, I found that I was depressed, and realized that it was because I didn’t get my Maine fix.  The place was in my blood, ingrained prenatally.

My great-nephew Eli in the dishpan

Speaking of babies, my first year or two, my parents would give me a bath in the large steel dishpan, one of two that we use daily to wash and rinse the mountains of dishes.  My older brothers were bathed in it before me, and my nephews and nieces used it that way after me.  This summer a new generation was baptized in it.  We also use the pans for dishwashing – we’ve resisted buying a dishwasher, in keeping with the tradition of washing by hand.  (Besides, what would our mother’s ghost say if we caved to modernity there, in our 200+ year-old house?)  And, we follow a ritual:  glasses and cups first, then silverware, then the cleaner of the plates, and eventually, the pots and pans.  We take turns washing and drying, with occasional arguments (what are siblings for, anyway?) about whose turn it is.

Not only do we have household traditions, but activities that are “required” (at least by some of us) every summer.  For instance, there are morning walks to the end of the island and back, a distance of just over two miles each way.  And, jumping off the dock into the frigid Maine waters on hot days.  Some of us swim from one float to another, while others are satisfied jumping from high heights.  We often have a lobster cookout on the rocks on the backshore – live lobsters thrown into a pot of boiling seawater heated over a fire made of driftwood, baked potatoes and onions wrapped in aluminum foil, and salad.  No need for lobster crackers; we just use rocks to smash the lobster claws open.  And, while the lobsters are cooking, we build small rock piles and then stand at a distance to throw rocks at them and knock them over.  Everyone knows the game; no explanations needed.

Penobscot Mountain and the islands beyond

Then there’s the annual hike up Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park.  In our family, it  has to be done a certain way.  We park our car at Jordan Pond House, climb Sargent via one of two trails; and eat our Full Belli Deli sandwiches at the summit or just below at Sargent Mountain Pond, where we swim from one side to the other.  Then we hike up Penobscot Mountain, and descend via the Penobscot Mountain trail for sweeping views of the many islands to the south.  As my nephew says, the hiking is really just an excuse for what comes next:  the tea and popovers on the lawn at Jordan Pond House.  They’re the biggest, airiest popovers you’ll ever eat, and they’re accompanied by unsweetened lemonade or iced tea with a small pitcher of simple syrup on the side.

Homemade wild blueberry pie

Uh oh, I’m getting hungry.  It’s time to take a refreshment break (and a reading break).  If we were in Maine, we’d be eating hand-picked wild blueberries, baked into cake, buckle, pie or pancakes.  For dinner, there’d be kale, chard, carrots and lettuce from the garden, along with fresh salmon, haddock or halibut cooked on the grill or made into chowder.  Gin and tonics, or whisky sours.  They’re all part of island tradition.

Stay tuned for more to come.  I’m on a roll just thinking about how habit-bound we are.

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Migratory Thoughts – a Summertime Perspective


Rock cairn in Acadia National Park

Hey, did you notice the change??  I’m no longer standing above a volcanic lake in Nicaragua.  Now I’m in front of a glacial lake in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta (Canada).  Well, actually, at this very moment I’m sitting in front of my computer typing.  But, if you’ve been here before, you know what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the image on the header of my blog site.  It appears that I’ve migrated north for the summer.   In fact, I have, though not just for a few days in Canada.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Why the switch?  Well, I’ve been blogging for just over a year, and have decided that it’s time for a change.  What do you think?  Will my blog posts feel different when you see me dressed in pink and surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glacial waters?  After all (in case you’ve forgotten or are new here), I used to be in a red shirt by a lake bordered by dark green tropical forest.  How much do the images above a blog post, whether they’re deliberately inspected or only unconsciously perceived, influence the reader?  Especially when the content of the blog is unrelated….

Abi on Sargent Mountain

It’s a question to ponder, not necessarily to be answered in full.  But since we’re on the topic of photos – and in this case, photos of me in various places – I’m including a few of where I’m when not seated in front of the computer.  In part, I’m doing so to explain the absence of a blog post this week and maybe next (for which I hope you will forgive me).   I’ve migrated to Maine.  It’s an annual migration that began before I was born.  I’m addicted to spending part of the summer on “my” island (not mine alone, you understand), and to getting my fix of salt air, cool ocean breezes, hemlock-fir forests carpeted with sphagnum moss, and granite-topped mountains.   And, when I’m here I find it difficult to sit down and write.

So, I solicit your patience, and ask you to accept a shortened, less meticulously written entry for the week.  Yes, this blogging thing often feels like work.  It’s difficult.  I enjoy it – don’t get me wrong – but it doesn’t come easily.  I keep hoping that it will, that the words and the thoughts will flow more organically, but I’m not quite there yet.  In part, it’s because I have set high standards for myself, and am always conscious of meeting them.  I want to write well, and always feel good when people tell me I do.  I relish those compliments, but there’s a downside to them.  They paralyze me, making me afraid to post anything that’s less than well-written.

Ready to climb up – Acadia National Park

So, my summer resolution – in keeping with the relaxed, kick-back attitude of the season and with the change of venue – is to write shorter, less-labored blogs.  To express random thoughts and ideas, no matter how well-formed and articulate they may be.  To just write, and post, whatever it is I’ve written; to communicate more randomly with my readers, and to resist the pressure of having to post a story or essay full of depth, insight, humor or information.  After all, that’s what blogs are all about…

Are you okay with this?  After more than a year of blogging, it’s time that I hear what you’re looking for when you read a blog.  Or, more specifically (for my more faithful readers), what you hope for when you read my blog?  Let me know.  And while you consider your answer, enjoy the pictures of my northern migration.  I hope that you, too, are able to experience a cooler clime, a change of venue and a new perspective.  In any case, there’s the new picture in the header of my blog to inspire migratory thought.

Future header photo – Acadia National Park

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