Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feliz Navidad

It was indeed a Merry Christmas this year thoroughly surrounded by family. The song "Tradition!" from Fiddler on the Roof pops in my head whenever some one asks me what I'm doing for Christmas because, well, it's been the same my whole life. And I like it that way. It's funny... I've been in foreign countries for 4 out of my last 8 birthdays, but I'm reluctant to leave during the holidays.

Christmas Eve we always go to a great aunt's house for a Norwegian-influenced party. There is a delicious food spread with some traditional Norwegian dishes such as lefse, krumkake and rullepolse. Then we sing carols around the Christmas tree while holding hands in two circles. Every year I vow to review song lyrics so that we can sing intelligibly on more than just the choruses, but I suppose part of the charm of our family choral endeavor is its slightly haphazard quality. Just when our throats are getting hoarse, Santa comes! He brings all the kids one gift, which is sort of the gateway for every one else to exchange presents.

Christmas morning is at my mom's with the immediate family, the highlight being of course the little kids, my one-year-old niece and eight-year-old niece. Later we head to another aunt's house for brunch, always waffles, strawberries, whipped cream, bacon, frittata, coffee, and mimosas. There is a freshness and serenity at my aunt's that I can't quite describe, and I like the mellowness of getting together early in the day instead of for dinner. Apart from the waffles, activities are always a little different- maybe a jenga tournament, a basketball game, watching old home-videos, or playing in the snow. This year we drew each other's names from a bowl and took turns saying one nice thing about that person. It was really sweet and brought more intention to the gathering. We head home in the afternoon to finish the mellow day, such a welcome change from the frenetic pace that usually leads up to the holiday.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eastside Roadtrip- Cold weather! Babies!

Last weekend I caught a ride with my mom, Larry, and bro Joe over to Spokane to visit some family. My brother Isaac lives there but just joined the Marines and is in boot camp, so we stayed with his wife and two kids. The little ones are two and five years old and super sweet. We had fun playing dolls, building lego towers, baking cupcakes, and watching movies. We even braved the 20 degree air and went on a carousel ride.

I also finally had the chance to visit my cousin Ally who just had a baby! She and her husband Chris live in Idaho, just outside Coeur D'Alene. Baby Beckett is already 3 months old, and I'm so happy I got to meet the little guy before he got any bigger. Their family seems to be doing great- Ally is as beautiful and well-adjusted as ever, Beckett is smiley and adorable, and Chris is stoked to be a hands-on dad and still whip up an amazing dinner- chicken breast baked in goat cheese with a basil-balsamic reduction. While the new parents put baby to bed, I enjoyed the lack of such responsibility by soaking in their hot tub, sipping wine as snow was falling around me. There was already a dusted layer on the ground, their first snow of the year.

In the morning I awoke to fresh coffee and pumpkin pancakes. Then Ally and Chris gave me a tour of Coeur D'Alene, including the beautiful but cold view of the lake from the boardwalk, and more coffee at a bustling coffee shop. I had to try the "bowl of soul", a mocha made with Mexican chocolate, copious amounts of cinnamon, and homemade whipped cream, making a convert of even this strict americano drinker.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Panza llena, Corazon contento (Full belly, Happy heart)

In this modern life of being geographically divided between friend groups and different parts of the family, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where to spend holidays. I feel like I have the trifecta perfecta "best of all worlds" by splitting my existence between Seattle, Bellingham, and the islands, but that didn't make deciding what to do on Thanksgiving any easier.

I was already in Glacier earlier in the week and passing through Bellingham before turkey day. I stayed at friends' Katie and Alan's house, and they enthusiastically invited me to stay for the feast! Part inspired by their unique dining room, part not wanting to do anymore driving, part looking to do something unexpected, and part totally adoring Katie and Alan-- all contributed to me deciding to stay.

They have a side building off the house, affectionately called the Shed, that they have been fixing up over the past year. It serves as a rec room/guest room of sorts, and this year was christened dining room as they hosted 15 guests for Thanksgiving. It is still without insulation and drywall, but a wood stove keeps it toasty, and the exposed wood walls add a charming, barn-like feel. When they were re-doing the floor, they pulled up a large piece of old wood that Alan recycled into a giant 9 foot by 5 foot table! So there were 45 square feet of dining surface. Katie made a large evergreen wreath suspended horizontally over the table, with numerous hanging tealight candles dangling from it. The whole space was beautifully rustic and elegant.

Oh, and the food was great too. All the usual delicious autumnal dishes, plus a few less traditional ones as well. Multiple stuffings, cranberry sauces, gravies, and veggies made it hard to try everything before getting totally stuffed. I liked Katie's checkered presentation of the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. Dessert held not only pies but apple crisp, local Mallard's ice cream, and port.

As I sat in a full-belly, post-feast daze, I looked around the room contentedly. All across the country, people were doing the same thing, reveling in the comfortable chatter of close ones, feeling warm and nourished. I was missing certain family members and friends, but happy to know that we were all sharing in this similar holiday feel in different places. That's why I like Thanksgiving- it's not over-commercialized, not full of expectations, very simple actually. It's just a seasonal, sincere meal as food is meant to be, shared with conversation and many people contributing. I will remember this year's holiday fondly thanks to Katie and Alan and their open-armed community. And for all this I am truly, truly thankful.

Oh, and in light of the holiday, I thought it would be the perfect time to add a few more blog links to my list, both food-related. One is the Cook Castillo, an brand spankin' new blog about cooking at a restaurant on Orcas Island, and the other is Not Without Salt, a more established one by a pasty chef in Bellingham.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Goodbye Fair Isle

It's official. I'm no longer an Orcas Island resident.

I have had a wonderful last year and a half living there, but I am ready to move on. I have been unemployed recently and am looking forward to finding work in a bigger place. For now that place is Seattle, thanks to the grace of my dear parents who are letting me once again call their house my home. Moving also means the return of everyday conveniences I have been missing- central heating! a refrigerator! internet! electricity! indoor plumbing! public transit!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Aries Hunting Aries

I have just returned from my first real hunting trip. I went last year, but it was more of an introduction to see if it was something I could even handle or want to do. I decided I could handle it, and that this year I endeavored to do everything on my own, from stalking to shooting to gutting to skinning to butchering.

My step-dad Larry and step-bro Brandon kindly had me along on their annual deer and moufflon hunt at our family's property on Stuart Island. BTW, a moufflon is a wild sheep, and you can read more about them here on Wikipedia. They are legal to hunt at any time, and smaller than a deer, so that seemed like the perfect animal to start with as a neophyte huntress.

The first day Brandon and I tracked the moufflon ALL day. They seem to know when it is hunting season, and get more skiddish once they have heard any shots. After a day of tromping up and down hillsides, bushwacking, and climbing over logs in the drizzling rain, all with a gun in hand, I was tired and tired of feeling like I was in boot camp. All day Bjork's song from Homogenic was running through my head, "I'm a hunter... ooh, ooh... I'm going hunting..."

But thus far, it didn't really seem like I was a hunter. After the excitement of the prospect of harvesting my own wild meat, I had a reality check that it was very possible that I wouldn't get a moufflon after all. I got a good night's sleep and woke up optimistic, though it was raining even harder than the day before. Brandon and I set out down the road to again start at the far end of the property and work our way back along the ridge.

After less than a 10 minute walk, we saw a small herd of ewes grazing in an open meadow on the side of the road. My adrenaline began pumping. We had a clear shot, a safe backdrop, and they didn't know we were there yet. "This is my shot," I whispered to my brother. He nodded, and we both kneeled down to take aim. I was shaking but tried to steady myself and my breathing while not making any noise. I hadn't actually shot a gun since target practice when I was a kid, oh, maybe 17 years ago. I picked a dark moufflon at a good angle to me and pulled the trigger.

They all ran up toward the woods. Again the reality hit me that hunting is no easy undertaking, and not only is it sometimes hard to find the animals, but people miss targets all the time. Bran and I went down to the field to check for a possible blood trail and try to track the herd. We walked about 30 feet into the woods and there on the ground was a dark female moufflon. "You got her," Brandon said. "No way, I missed!" I said. He put his hand on her belly and shook his head. "She's still warm." And then he felt the neck and showed me where the bullet entered.

At this moment sets in the strangest mix of feelings, of pride and confusion and horror. This mammal was alive and eating a minute ago, and through some remote action with a firearm she is dead on this cold, grey morning. But that moment passes, and I feel completely able to take responsibility for my action, for doing it with intention, and for embracing the intimacy of interacting with an animal that I will eat. And even beyond that, I feel attentively calm and focused on the next step of cleaning the animal well. I watched the guys field dress last year, but had never done it myself. Brandon walked me through it verbally, from slitting the throat to drain the blood, to slicing open the belly, to pulling out all the organs, to the careful cuts around the pelvis to remove the tail and reproductive parts cleanly. And this is no clean business. The smell is indescribable. The guts are eerily warm and steaming. The blood that doesn't drain from the neck is thick and goopy and must be scooped out of the body cavity. Some organs don't want to come out easily and must be yanked.

By the time I got her back to the cabin, I was totally drenched. I changed clothes and drank some hot chocolate before heading back out to find Larry. Brandon wanted to continue hunting on his own, so Larry would help me hang the moufflon and skin. I actually am pretty experienced with skinning, but it's nice to have an extra set of eyes. He also helped me spread open the chest to get more air circulation in there and cool the meat faster. Soon the work was done and there was nothing more for me to do except wait the 3 days for the meat to cure before butchering, which a friend would help me with later back on Orcas.

The most profound part of the weekend for me was just becoming so comfortable with the blood and gore of it all. As people who know me well can attest, I have serious issues with blood. I have to lay down to get my blood drawn, can't donate, and have been known to get nauseaous and/or faint at the sight of a small cut on myself or others. Friends have to censor really graphic parts in movies and I cover my eyes until the blood has past.

Yet. Somehow when it comes to animal blood, I do just fine. In fact, the instinctual drive to preserve the animal makes it easy. Where this comes from I don't know, but it's pretty empowering for a person who normally has to lay by the toilet for 10 minutes after cutting her finger slightly on a kitchen knife.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rediscovering the Mainland

I have been totally in love with rural island living for more than a year, but the charm seems to be wearing off a little. While for the past year I only left the island when I had to, I suddenly find myself leaving more often and drawn to the people, culture, variety, and faster pace on the "mainland".

On my most recent off-island trip I hiked up Mt. Pilchuck (near Granite Falls) with girlfriends Erin and Serena. I was excited to go hiking in the Cascades and see a new view, which was supposed to be spectacular from the 1920's fire lookout at the top. Unfortunately, it was a foggy, overcast day, and we couldn't see anything! It was still a beautiful hike, and fun, varied trail through forest and granite boulder fields. Afterward, tired and hungry, we returned to Erin's house to make dinner and get a pasta-making lesson from her. We made delicious homemade butternut squash and sage raviolis with a toasted hazelnut brown butter sauce, a shave of pecorino, and green salad with heirloom garden tomatoes.

My niece Emma also turned one year old! I can't believe it. She is walking all over the place, saying a few words, and pretty much cuter than ever. It was a pool party for her birthday and I found myself having a blast with all the kids going down the big slide and swinging on the rope swing.

I also caught up with old friends, went running on the Burke-Gilman, and enjoyed some happy-hour specials including a prickly pear margarita. Ole!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Quote and A Shout-Out

I want to send my love and best wishes to a couple friends who just left the country! First to Elizabeth, who moved back to Buenos Aires for the next 8 months. I visited her last year in Chile before she moved to BA for the first time. We had a blast in Valparaiso and I know she will have an amazing time being back in South America.

The day after she left, Kate left for Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Israel/Palestine for the next 5 months. You can read about both their adventures in their blogs, La Vida Desconocida and In the Middle of What, respectively. Seeing their excitement in embarking on these adventures only heightens my desire to take off for somewhere myself. Hopefully soon... maybe I can even meet up with one or both of them!

I also recently came across a quote I really like by Martha Graham, choreographer and dancer who basically pioneered modern dance.

"There is a vitality, a life force, and energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, that expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."

Heck yeah!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hunkering Down, Bundling Up

After the first few days of fall being amazingly sunny and warm, it has now turned chilly and autumnal. I realize that on this blog I am almost always talking about the change of the seasons, but c'mon, I practically live outside (luxury camping!) so it is a major part of my life. I can tell the outside temperature and if it's clear or cloudy practically before I even open my eyes in the morning. Sleeping in a yurt makes me very close to the air, and harder to get out of bed now that the nights are colder. Having an outdoor kitchen and living room means we have to bundle up in the evenings, prompting us to wear ridiculous outfits we would never otherwise don, such as ponchos, fleece pants, uggs, and wool hats.

Cooking dinner by candlelight and headlamp takes a certain resolution unto itself. Though we are barely out of summer, the cold is already making my roommates and I change our diet, suddenly craving warmer, richer, high-caloric foods. Gone are the light meals of veggies, salads, and berries. A recent house dinner for example: As an appetizer we made cheese and garlic-stuffed fried squash blossoms, and we almost never fry things. While we were on a role, some one suggested fried avocado. Sure, why not?! We were all already feeling fatter by the time dinner was ready, and I had made an oyster mushroom-shallot cream sauce for the orzo and veggies. I usually don't even like cream sauces! While I was chuckling at this sudden change, I came across a related passage in Under the Tuscan Sun, which I am reading for the first time. I'm really enjoying it, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless they could get to Italy in the next year, because it will make you want to go.

"The rich smells drifting from our kitchen are different in winter. The light summer fragrances of basil, lemon balm, and tomatoes are replaced by aromas of succulent pork roast glazed with honey, guinea hens roasting under a layer of pancetta, and ribollita, that heartiest of soups. Subtle and earthy, the fine shavings of Umbrian truffle over a bowl of pasta prick the senses. At breakfast, the perfumed melons of summer are forgotten and we use leftover bread for slabs of French toast spread with jam plum I made last summer from the delicate coscia de monaca, nun's thigh, variety that grows along the back of the house..."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Smaller Island Exploration

In an effort to take full advantage of living in the San Juans, I've explored a few smaller neighboring islands recently. Here is a recap of my summer island-hoping.

JONES: Jones is a small island near Deer Harbor, just off the southwest side of Orcas. It makes for a great afternoon sail, quick overnight getaway, or stop-over en route to other islands. There are two harbors on the north and south sides, so you can pick the more protected anchorage depending on the direction the wind is blowing from. The whole island is a state park, and trails ring around and across the island. Kevin and I have sailed over there several times together. Most recently we went on Labor Day weekend to spend the night and get an earlier start sailing to islands north of Orcas. Here's a view from the southside.

PATOS: From Jones we woke up horrifically early to catch the current up President's Channel and make it to Patos, the most northern island, so small and outlying that it's not even on the map above. It's north of Waldron, west of Sucia. By the time we were drinking coffee, it was a beautiful calm sunny morning. I saw more porpoises than I have ever seen in the San Juans, or anywhere for that matter, their curved black backs sliding out of the water all around us continually, probably about about 30 of them. As we approached Patos, the historic lighthouse loomed over the water. Right across from Patos in Canada is Saturna, and an almost identical lighthouse sits on a point there too, making the islands look like reflections of each other. Spots like that that have such similar geography and architecture remind me just how arbitrary the national boundaries can be. I peeked in the lighthouse window and saw, among other things, a line-up of rubber duckies in all sorts of village-people work attire- fireman, nurse, police officer, etc. Random, I thought. Then I realized that although the island is pronounced PAY-tos, it comes from the Spanish PAH-tos, meaning duck. Apparently there is a duck-theme going on. Anyway, Patos is fairly small, but a beautiful trail around the outside hugs the shore next to a wide expanse of rocks and tide pools.

SUCIA: I've always wanted to go to Sucia because of the name meaning "dirty" in Spanish and that intrigue me. It's pronounced SOO-sha locally, but in espanol would be SOO-see-ah. And it just looks cool on the map, all long and sinewy with arms and harbors. Like Jones and Patos, it is entirely state park with many trails and bays. It is really close to Orcas, and all summer I just wanted to kayak from the north side of Orcas, but for various reasons with various friends it never worked out. So instead it was a sail from Patos, probably more fun anyway.

We anchored in Shallow Bay, which definitely lives up to its namesake. We were checking the tide chart to make sure that the low low tide wouldn't be, well, too low. Luckily at the lowest it would be a +2.1 foot tide, so we estimated that at the worst we'd be in 9 feet of water, and since the hull draws almost 6 feet, it gave us just over 3 feet to spare. I had a dream that I woke up to the boat sitting on the bottom, and I got out and walked to shore because it was so shallow. Fortunately when I woke up we were still floating.

Sucia is cool geologically because it is all sandstone, so there are sweet caves and cliffs and rock formations that you don't see in many of the other islands.

WALDRON: I've been fascinated with getting to Waldron ever since I heard that it was completely private and the only way to go was through an invite. I bided my time, plotted my strategy, and finally went in August as a chaperone for the FEAST (Farm Education and Sustainability for Teens) Program. My roomate is the coordinator for this awesome accredited high school summer program, and I have volunteered with them on local farms and events since last year. Most of the education is based on Orcas, but this was the students' opportunity to visit a neighboring island at the invitation of a Waldrom resident who is a renowned botanist, especially for wild edibles, and especially for seaweed. We spent two days going on plant walks, learning about marine and forest ecology, and eating wild food, discovering just how much is actually edible. I don't think I have ever put so many new foods in my mouth in one day. At night we all camped out at the public school.

Once the students left, we adults had some time to ourselves. It was the annual community caberet fundraiser that night, so we hitched a ride across the island to check it out. Waldron is probably the most culturally isolated island in the archipelago, to the point of having a reputation for hostility to outsiders. I'm glad I got to go on a weekend where there was a large event, and overall I found people extremely friendly. It was on an absolutely stunning piece of property, a working farm set atop a cliff overlooking President's channel. It's not too often in this area you see agricultural land with a waterfront view. The vegetables are sold at the San Juan farmer's market, and the flowers at the market here on Orcas. For a reasonable entry fee, they provided delicious food, mostly fresh from the farm, an assortment of homemade desserts, and beverages. There was a live auction, musical acts, skits, and in the end an impromptu dance party before heading home.

STUART: It's not really new to explore Stuart because I have been going there my whole life, but it is still a smaller island that I would like to write about. It is mostly private, but has a substantial state park on it that bring a lot of tourists to an otherwise remote island. There is no grid electricity, no paved roads, no stores, and mail is only delivered 3 times a week. There is a one-room K-8 school that is still in use and a historic lighthouse. It is the very most northwestern island before Canada, earning the nickname "the last outpost", and has a history of independent, wild folks living there, as seems to be the case for these islands in general.

I took this picture from the air, and you can really see the anchor-shape of the island.

The Turn Point Lighthouse with Suicide Bluff in the background, one of my favorite places on the planet to watch the sunset.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Off the Rock

I am officially unemployed and happily feeling like a total bum for the moment. I just took a solid week off from Orcas to visit peeps in Seattle and take a trip to Southern Oregon. Highlights: The drive to Seattle with Kate who is a walking encyclopedia of Middle East history (U.S.-Iran relations 1955-1995 was an 50 minute explanation); massive amounts of canning at my mom's house (BBQ sauce, chutneys, plum sauce, 3-pepper jelly); urban foraging in Columbia City and eating Ethiopian food with Elizabeth; catching up over margaritas with Lindsey; Capitol Hill with Will including fish tacos and a yummy Elysian winter beer aged in oak; seeing my niece who is the cutest baby ever; a night in an old Portland house where it was too hot to sleep but I didn't care because it felt like summer; and an epic roadtrip with Kimberlyn and Justin. They are a couple who are getting married next year, and I went to the Rogue River in Oregon with them to check out a lodge as a possible wedding location. It is an incredibly remote lodge as there is no road access and you either have to hike in along the river, raft in from near Grant's Pass, or take a jet boat hours up the river from the coast. Crazy! It was a beautiful spot and quite an adventure to get down there and back in a weekend.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Visitor Central

Summer marches onward and downward as these warm days get cooler and days get shorter. It's been a busy but mellow summer (if that doesn't seem too oxymoronic) between working, taking mini-trips, trying to play outside, and...having visitors come! Now that I've lived on Orcas for a year, friends have really made an effort to come up, which has been a highlight of my summer. I want to give a shout out to all my friends who drove up, braved the ferry, were enthusiastic about the yurt homestead, brought provisions from the mainland, shared wonderful food and adventures, and were all-around amazing guests.

Thanks to!: Tonya, Kalianna, Aunt Kelly, Kimberlyn (Obee too), Jon, Angela, Will, Ian, Lindsey, Melissa, Samm, Katie, Alan, Norma, Angie, Kerri, Justin, Merilee, Jodie, and Elizabeth. It warmed my little heart to see all of them up here. Elizabeth was my most recent visitor, and you can read all about it on her blog, La Vida Desconocida, probably in more eloquent words than I could muster. And Monday my dear Kate arrives, old college friend who has been living in DC for the last 2 years. She had to go to a wedding in Spokane and I jokingly suggested she swing by the San Juans on her way home... and lo and behold she's coming!

Glad people made it up while the weather was nice and while I still live out here. I should have a solid month left in the yurt if anyone else is thinking about making the trip...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ho Hum

It seems that not a lot of hugely exciting happenings have been happening lately for me, yet I feel like I should write something anyway. Maybe it's because my blog is called AmberAnda, and I haven't been Anda-ing (going) anywhere lately. I feel a bit stuck on the rock. On the upside, I have had a handful of great visitors come here, and it's always fun to show friends around and be tour guide. It even prompts me to do things on the island I haven't done yet, like hike up Mt. Constitution from Mountain Lake.

But if I had to create news from the slim pickin's, I would be hugely happy to report that I just paid off my student loans! About 2 years after graduating college, I am officially debt-free. No credit card bill either. Yeahhhhh, whoooo!

This past weekend I also saw one of the most amazing lightning storms of my life. Granted, I am from the PNW, and we don't get crazy lightning like in the Southwest or other parts of the country, but still, constant jagged forked lightning layered on bright pink sheet lightning was pretty impressive.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In the Thick of It

As Pacific Northwesterners, it seems like we spend most of the year waiting for summer. Then suddenly it's here, and it's the middle of July before you know it! The farmer's market is bustling, unripe fruit hangs on trees and bushes, and swims are necessary almost daily.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wonders of Nature

Spending so much time outside lately, I have been noticing odd and wonderful tidbits of the natural world. We found a ground nest on the farm of these baby baby birds... who knows what kind they are? Unfortunately, a week later they were gone, and surely too small to fly they probably became part of the food chain. Then the other day on top of my mint plant I saw this black grasshopper beetle looking thing with crazy long anteneas- I've never seen anything like it here. I wish Google had a reverse google image tool where you could input a picture and it would tell you what it was. I guess that's sort of what a field guide is, just a little more work. Then the weirdest thing I found lately was in the field at the farm, while digging furrows to plant potatoes. I hacked something in half that I thought was an animal part, because it looked like blood or bone marrow. But upon closer inspection, I thought it must be a rock, sort of shale or fossilized looking. But it was so red, it must be blood. But it looked more like rock than bone. Then a friend LICKED it (which admittedly was my first impulse too) to see what it tasted like, and reported that it had NO FLAVOR. Clearly, the only explanation is that it is a blood rock, left from a nightime landing from alien visitors.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Running running

I did my first half marathon last weekend! It was the scenic San Juan island marathon and half, and an early one for the running season. My lovely lady friends Katie of Bellingham and Tegan of Seattle trained separately, and then we all rendezvoused morning of the race. It was a perfect race morning- cool and dry turning into warm and sunny toward the end. I had no aches and pains, no problems at all, except that it was a really hilly course! There was one section with a sign "Flat section starts here". I got excited, thinking I would try to pick up my pace a little, until the sign, "Flat section ends here" only 50 feet ahead. Also, I couldn't help but notice the lack of portapotties along the way, even at support stations. Turns out the portapotties had been ordered and delivered... only a day early, and they had already been accidently picked up! Anyway, it was really fun and the fish and chips afterward felt well-earned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spring to Summer Frenzy

Tomorrow marks my one-year anniversary of living on Orcas! It's been a fun, full, past year of island life and there is nowhere else I'd rather be again this summer. So I've been back in the yurt for almost 2 months now... which I can't believe. What have I done? Well, the first month was pretty mellow as I moved in, picked up work, and tried to stay warm and dry in the cool spring.

The last few weeks though, have been the opposite- a frenzy of work and movement in these long warm days approaching solstice. Between working on a farm, volunteering in a community garden, having my own garden bed, and doing a container garden, it seems that plants have been determining my every day. Their needs don't wait and so neither does my work, and at this point it is still the big push to get everything in the ground. And it's almost to that point.

Here's a rundown of the recent accomplishments: at the farm, we've planted hundreds and hundreds of corn, beans, squash (winter and summer), cucumbers, tomatillos, onions, lettuces, melons, flowers, and peppers; in my garden, I've planted herbs, hot peppers, sauce and heirloom tomatoes; at the yurt I've been doing yardwork and trying to build kitchen cabinets (my first carpentry project since middle school wood shop); and in my free time I've been playing on boats, training for a half-marathon, making rose bud jewelry, and practicing the ukulele.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Another Season on the Island

I made it back from Mexico feeling grateful and settled, happy to have gone and happy to be home. Things I will miss: the body wrapping heat, delicious food, friends I see too rarely, old pre-Hispanic ruins scattered everywhere, and practicing Spanish. Things I won't miss: the constant noise in cities large and small, always being on my guard, buying drinking water, and taking cold showers.

And now it's back to Orcas Island, where I will live in the same yurt as last year for another summer. I love the quiet of the woods, the dark sky with bright stars, the deer everywhere, the small community of familiar faces, the flowers blooming, and being near the water all the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Making Tortillas and Running Up Pyramids

The last couple days with Josa were my favorite. We took an overnight trip to a few more communities, this time Nahua instead of Mixteco. In the first village we went to, they were already in their second year of the program, so their gardens were more established and thriving. They grow vegetables to supplement their beans-squash-corn diet, as well as herbs or flowers as small cash crops. I helped one señora clean cilantro to sell at their local market.

Then the family invited us to stay for dinner, and I tried to help make tortillas. They make it look so easy, but really it takes practice! I was clumsy, and tore a tortilla, and I think the lady was genuinely shocked. "My 8 year old daughter is proficient at it," she marveled. (Well, c'mon, we all have the skills we need for our own culture. At 8 I could make mac 'n cheese, vacuum, and record movies off the TV.)
It was a delicious meal of hot tortillas (tlaxcali in Nahuatl), beans, cheese homemade by the señor's mother, and fresh red salsa ("We could use a blender for the salsa, but it gives it a funny taste, so I prefer to do it by hand", the señora said). In the midst of all home-grown, home-made food, the kids are eating Frito's potato chips. The mother sighed and said she tries to get the kids to eat what the adults do, but they just want hot dogs, chips, and candy. A challenge for parents across cultures.

They next day we stopped in another village where they were having a community corn de-graining. After the corn is harvested, it's dried on the cob, and then rubbed off to be stored as grain to make masa for tortillas for the rest of the year. It takes 2-3 days of constant work to de-grain it all, and everyone pitches in with each other's corn.
Josafat and I stopped to help for awhile, and they were a jolly bunch of men and women of all ages. They brought us blended watermelon juice and joked around. (They call Josa Ingeniero, which means "Engineer", as a title of respect).

"Hey, Inge, where'd you pick up this guerra [white girl]? You guys look good together. Gosh, we sure like weddings in this town... and we haven't had one for a long time! Man, a wedding would be great. Oh, and there's this great plot of land at the end of town, could really use a young couple to work it. Just keep it in mind, Inge..."

They were cracking up. "Sounds great... but I don't know how to make tortillas!" I protested. "That's okay, we'll teach you!" One of the older women, probably in her 70's, was puzzled. I told her you can buy tortillas in the US, but not everyone eats them, and that we eat more bread. "Bread!? But, how do you sustain yourselves?" she asked.

Then it was time to leave Guerrero, say goodbye to Josa, and be on my way traveling back north. I went to the new-agey town of Tepoztlan, which has a prehispanic pyramid up on a cliffside overlooking the valley. I've been there before, and it's a steep climb to the top on a stone staircase. I did my best to jog up, but the incline and the heat and the high altitude kicked my butt. It was a great workout though, and a stunning view from the top.
From there I went to Cholula, which is a small city right next to Puebla in central Mexico where I lived with Josa for a month, two years ago. I forgot how freaking awesome Cholula is. It's the perfect size, big enough that there are things to do, but small enough that you can walk most places, and feel safe. It is also home to the largest pyramid IN THE WORLD, by volume.
The pyramid is super overgrown and looks like a big grassy hill, and when the Spaniards arrived they built a church on top of it. There are great running trails all around the base of it, and it's a sizeable jog to the top, especially here at 8,000 feet. When I lived here before, Josa and I would go running there every day, and it's fun to be back and do it again.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Back to the Beach

Josafat's girlfriend came down for the weekend, and along with another friend Wilbur, we decided to go to the coast. I was sooo glad for a break from Tlapa de Comonfort. It would be a decent working-class town, but 7 months without rain, a few tons of dust, intense heat, and 50,000 honking cars makes this Pacific Northwest girl crave water. The closest beach is a mere 80 miles away- but it took 4 hours to get there on horrible roads. I never get motion sick, but the constant jostle in the truck almost made me nauseous.

It was all worth it though when I saw the sparkling expanse of the Pacific, almost a Carribean turquoise. It's a beautiful coast- Guerrero is the same state that boasts Alcapulco and Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo. Those places have been heavily developed for foreign tourism, but there are still a handful of spots here that are for national tourism. Nothing fancy, just lots of seafood palapas along the beach, and a few Mexican families. Next week for Semana Santa (holy week) these places will be packed when city folks make their mass vacation exodus. Here you can still sleep on the beach, or in the restaurant hammocks as long as you buy food there at some point. The next day, although they weren't officially open yet, our restaurant made us coffee, and then set to work grilling a big red fish- a hauchilango- in adobo chiles, cloves, garlic, a little bit of mayonnaise, and who knows what else. With fresh tortillas and beans it was heavenly.

From there we went farther down to an estuary where Josa said they rented kayaks. It was so stunning, a river running alongside the ocean with only a small strip of beach separating them until they merged together in big waves. Behind that was a jumble of jungle plants before giving way to the distant mountains.

It turned out they no longer rented kayaks. They had skiffs, but they were sort of big for 4 of us, and we didn't want to disturb the serenity with a motor. There was one decrepit fiberglass canoe designed for 1-3 people. We decided to try it, carefully balancing our weight and praying we wouldn't tip over. The boat was about as thick as tagboard and I thought for sure something would happen, but the afternoon passed without incident as we paddled around the maze of sandbars and up the river to small beach embankments. We saw a bunch of fish, and a kazillion birds. Wow, I have never wanted a bird field guide so badly. There were lots of colored crane-egret types, sandpipers, maybe grebes, bright zippy little birds, one that looked like a wood duck-cardinal cross, just so so many.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Driving- A Blog Within a Blog

Yesterday we were coming back from one of the villages, and Josafat asked me if I wanted to drive. The roads are pretty intense, windy, rutted, constant up and down, sheer drop off on one side most of the time. But I decided to give it a try. It takes a lot of focus, but actually wasn't so bad, and made me think of the first time I drove in Mexico 2 years ago. Here's an excerpt from my MySpace blog that I wrote in May of 2007 when I was living with Josa and his girlfriend in Puebla doing a teaching practicum:

"Tuesday was my only free day before starting my practicum, and we ended up taking a mini road trip to the small indigenous town of Cuetzalan. Josafat is a masters student in agricultural economics, specializing in rural development. He's currently working on his thesis analyzing and comparing the role of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 3 parts of the state of Puebla. Anyway, there was a meeting he needed to go to in Cuetzalan, a 4 hour drive for a half hour meeting. But it was important, and his girlfriend and I decided to join him. They both have cars, but Josa got a car from his school as his was too "fresa"- literally strawberry, but means rich, snobby, inaccessible- for the countryside.

We were off by 6am in our old blue VW bug- called vochos here- with no radio, ac, or seat belts. Josa and Kari were dead tired from haciendo fiesta the night before, and I wanted to help with the driving. I am terrified of driving in road-anarchic Mexico, and only last month was I comfortable driving stick (called "estandard" here) in Seattle. Pero bueno. I was doing well except for all the topes- speed bumps, a little taller than ours and maybe 3 times as wide. They are everywhere; you´ll be cruising at 40 mph and suddenly a tope. As I was getting those down, we stopped for a delicious breakfast of squash blossom quesadillas and fresh squeezed orange juice.

We only had a hand-drawn map and road signs can be few and inconsistent. As the highway gave way to windy mountain roads, gravel, steep drop offs, it started to feel as if the location of this town was a secret. We got closer only by continually asking in every town if we were going the right way. One time we pulled into a town with a sign for Cuetzalan pointing straight ahead, but then you could only turn left or right! The roads are extremely bumpy and you're always dodging potholes. On top of other driving challenges, we were getting into a cloud forest and visibility wasn´t great. Also, you have to watch for road blocks in the form of señoras and young girls hanging up a rope and stopping you for donations to their saint of the day.

We finally arrived, descending sharply into this stone town. It immediately struck me as what Venice might be like were its narrow, elusive waterways filled with smooth stones and then the whole city stuck steeply and resolutely to the side of a mountain. The roads were so steep you couldn't really see the declivity until you started going down it. "Straight ahead?" I asked Josa. "Si, derecho," he answered, and I started going straight down the hill until we saw that it wasn't really a hill but turned into stairs! We had to back up, but putting the bug in reverse going down hill with the threat of driving down stairs was beyond my driving skills for the day. Josa pulled the emergency brake so we could switch places… and the hand brake pulled right off. "Tenemos un problema grande," he said astutely. There were two good wheel stones right by us- leaving me to believe that we weren't the first ones to drive down that street- so we put them under the tires, pulled what was left of the e-brake, and quickly switched spots. But the grace of the saint of the day, Josa backed up, and we made a note to park on flat ground for the rest of the day."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Leaving the Coast

After the coast I headed inland to meet up with my friend Josafat. We went north of Mexico City to Pachuca where his girlfriend was having her big birthday fiesta at her parents' house. There was alcoholic horchata, artisenal mezcal, a keg of beer, chicken chalupas, jicama chile salad, fresh strawberries and cream, hoards of old friends... and a karoake machine! Party guests sang for hours and hours, from Mexican pop music to American rock to traditional norteño. I personally rocked some Shakira, Juanes, Beatles, and Nirvana.

In the morning the party continued and 2 carloads of us drove up into the hills to the small, quaint village of Real del Monte. It is actually considered one of the 12 "magical villages" of Mexico, along with Real de Catorce, San Miguel de Allende, Tepoztlan, Cuetzalan, and I don't know where else. But it definitely has an colonial, frozen-in-time feel, the way that inland Mexico is often depicted in movies. Right by there is El Chico National Park, the first preservation land in all of Latin America. There are cedars and pines along with bromeliads hanging from the trees.

Once the weekend of fun was over, it was time to get to work. Josa and I took an overnight bus south to Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, the small city where his office is based out of. The city was recently militarized due to drug-trafficking, and uniformed men with huge guns abound, which kind of freaked me out of at first. But now I go jogging in the mornings and run past them without thinking about it too much.

Josafat works for a government-funded food security program called PESA (Proyecto Estrategico de Seguridad Alimentaria). With 17 development engineers, they work in about 65 indigenous communities throughout the state. He is one of the coordinators of these engineers, and oversees their projects.

There are 3 different ethnic groups in this region (Nahua, Mixteco, and Tlapaneco) and their villages are anywhere from a half hour to a 6 hour drive from Tlapa de Comonfort. Within the scope of their program, they are only reaching about 10% of the indigenous population in the state, which is one of the poorest in the country.

The PESA employees do educational workshops in the villages, and then do a participatory demonstration project with a resident so others can learn how it's done. Then an engineer is there to help anyone else do their own project. This year they have focused on building wood-efficient cookstoves (as opposed to cooking over an open fire), chicken/turkey coops, composting-toilet bathrooms, ferrocement water storage tanks, and home gardens.

On an average day, we leave town at 7am and drive a couple hours with the 5 other members of Josafat's team in the cab of his pickup. It's cramped, but these are all jolly co-workers, a couple of whom speak Nahautl or Mixteco. These are hot, dusty, windy mountain roads. It is about a month until the rainy season begins, so right now is the driest part of the year. We finally get to one of the communities, and the town announces our arrival over a loudspeaker so that everyone knows it's time for a meeting.
Señoras slowly start making their way toward the meeting hall, most carrying a baby on back or with small kids trailing behind. In all 3 local languages, nana means señora or ma'am. This is a Mixteco village, so we shake all their hands and greet them with a hello, Kwa u nana! It is only women who are involved in the project; since they do all the cooking, they have the most relation with the question of food security. Plus, men and women's work does not frequently mix here, so it is all women and children, maybe 70 in all, who arrive for the meeting. As the program is winding down for the year, now is the time for closing workshops, to evaluate what worked and what could be improved.

As these communities, and individual people, are receiving government money, the program has to maintain good paperwork to prove that the money is being used for its right purpose. So every person who has received money has to sign their name on a form, and this takes the first hour. As a lot of them cannot write, they put their fingerprint. They break into groups to discuss the various projects that they have done, as well as to talk about the upcoming environmental conservation efforts that will start next.

I help Josafat do some very basic environmental education, talking about the effects of mass deforestation on the hillsides, erosion, use of chemical fertilizers in their fields, and the bio-accumulation of contaminants. It's hard to tell how much is being understood without a Mixteco interpretor, as a lot of the community members speak limited Spanish. Josafat says they understand more than they speak, because indeed they are shy of outsiders. More than once a child saw us and burst into tears, reacting to the unfamiliarity of Josafat being a fairly light-skinned Meztizo and to me being a guerra.
One great thing about the program is that they only do projects with people who want them, and they provide materials and technical help, but the community has to do most of the work themselves. That way, they learn new skills and are invested in the results. Much of the Mexican government's assistance to the poorest population have been in the form of handouts, just giving money or materials without any follow-through on how it is used. In almost every community I saw piles of unused building materials, such as wood shingles or rebar or bags of cement or wheelbarrows- provided on some other occasion without a community liason, education, training, or follow-up.

The majority of men who would know what to do with these materials are outside the community, either migrated to work in northern Mexico or the U.S. PESA is non-partisan and seeks to create more long-term solutions for healthy, self-sufficient, and sustainable food systems.

The community members always offer to feed these rural technicians who have traveled a long way. One day it was chicken in a red mole, with hot tortillas off the comal as the señora made them. No utensils, just tortillas as an eating medium. Oh, and a big soda. As Josafat says, there are many villages without a doctor, but you won't find anywhere without Coca-Cola.

In another community they roasted a sheep as a thankyou for the end of the season. It was a generous, though somewhat gristly meal, served along with green salsa, blue corn tortillas, and the sheep's liver, which I politely declined.
We are almost home around 8pm, and it's been a long 13 hour day. I want nothing more than to take a shower, drink some water, and go to sleep. But no, in one of the closer villages to Tlapa, another place the program works, we stop for beers. I try to refuse, and everyone is puzzled- why would you turn down drinking a cold beer with friends?

"Just don't say that the people of Guerrero didn't try to show you a good time," Josafat's coworkers tell me. Finally after a few rounds, and me translating some Alan Jackson song lyrics for them, we get back to the office in Tlapa... where someone suggests more beer! You have got to be kidding. We are meeting back at the office at 6:45 a.m., and I have a feeling that I'm going to get a little behind on my running schedule this week.