Sunday, July 16, 2006

Storm

Throughout the day, the rain had been coming down rather steadily; occasionally, it would whittle down to a flimsy sprinkle, and more often, it would attack the city with sheets of angry raindrops careening in from the heavens. But for the most part, it was a steady, grey rain falling from the grey clouds, through the grey sky and melting into the wet ground beneath.

Now, the scene was changing. Lying in bed, all was dark in my room and on the outside of my cold glass windows. The slight breezes I had felt during the day were gaining intensity, beginning to sound as if they were holding a hectic race of power between themselves. I heard the woos and wahs of the trees outside; my windows began to rattle and bang with a passion. The whole house seemed to shudder with each gust as the wind grew to be a ferocious monster in the dark.

I opened my windows a crack in the hopes that they would not shatter, sending my curtains to the ceiling. A great rumble filled my room and I jumped up to see the tree outside flattened against one window, pushing and arguing with it as if to say, "Let me pass!" The rain was pounding the ground, giving the impression that one was living in the center of a lake.

I went back to bed, and slowly dropped off to sleep amidst the screams of the angry wind, the thrashing rain of the skies, and the growling, groaning pain of the house around me.

In the morning, all was quiet. A few trees littered the driveway; the woodshed had lost its footing and it too lay prone in pieces; the ground was a muddy lake of leftover rain.

The storm was gone.

Sunrise at Sea

SUNRISE AT SEA

It was early morning -- six o'clock, I should say -- when I wandered out on deck. Around me, I saw a breathtaking world of soft violet and rich red. The fog around the horizon met and blended imperceptibly with the sea all around me, and again cottoned into the smooth, clear sky above.

The sea itself had not a ripple on it, save for the wake our ship was leaving behind us. Not a fish broke the glassiness; not a breeze touched its smoothness. Somewhere in the sky -- one could not tell where -- the sun was rising. It cast a glow of warmth, permeating through the fog, flowing through the sky, melting into the water to give an impression of rich depth.

All around was a two-toned beauty -- the blues and the reds blending together in all the world I could see, reflecting off the white walls of the ship as it glided through the sea.

It was a beautiful sunrise.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Playing Go (Baduk) With Korean Fishermen

This little adventure happened in Safi, Morocco (known for its sardine fishing).

It was common, almost traditional, to wolf down our food at mealtimes and then go for a walk out on the docks or the breakwater.

In keeping with this tradition, I was walking with some friends during lunch one sunny North African day, and passed by a Korean fishing boat which was moored behind us. I noticed several grizzled, fiftyish fishermen sitting on deck having lunch (bowls of rice with fish on top), and playing a board game I knew by its Japanese name, "Go". In Korean, it is termed "Baduk". The Chinese call it "WeiQi".

I knew a little about Go (having played it myself), and told my friends what I knew of the game, pointing as I explained. The seaworthy fellows on the fishing boat noted this oddity (a young freckle-faced redhead explaining an ancient Asian board game to her companions), and found this intriguing (or at least entertaining).

So they invited me to come for dinner and play Go with them.

They spoke no English. I spoke no Korean. We determined by pointing to our watches and pointing to bowls of rice and pointing to the Go board that I was to come by at 6:00 for dinner and a game.

Six o'clock arrived, and my friends from lunch accompanied me. Chopsticks in hand, I sat on a low stool set at the board, and ate rice with fish. I played Go with one kindly fellow, his weathered face a study in courtesy, while surrounded by four or five others. They stood behind me and helped me to play. And of course, they let me win.

You know what would be really nice ? I would so enjoy finding these fishermen whose lives crossed paths with mine that day in Safi, sharing another meal and playing another game (and this time, losing). They were a fine group of gentlemen.



Beautiful Portugal, and the Communist Revolution

I spent quite a bit of time in Portugal in the early 1970's. This post is about Lisboa. I will write separately about other wonderful Portuguese towns, cities and islands where I have been.

Portugal is one of the most beautiful countries I've had the pleasure and privilege to live in.

I've eaten many a fine meal at Gambrinus, one of Lisboa's oldest and classiest restaurants. I believe they were established in the 1930's. Portuguese food has got to be some of the best around. And I've watched more than a few movies at the classic Eden Teatro cinema -- sadly no longer a theatre. It had a huge glass front, and you would go inside on the first floor to find various small shops, and then go up the tall stairs to the cinema itself.

Once, someone gave me a sweet little doll. Its little arms and legs moved, and if you laid it down, its eyelids would close. It was fully clothed in traditional dress, detailed in miniature. This sweet little doll was only about 3-1/2 inches tall. I had that doll for nearly 35 years before finally deciding to part with it, the poor thing having lost both its little legs at different times somewhere along the line.

Sometimes I would go to the fresh cheese shop and get queso fresco (the best goat cheese in the entire universe), and to the vegetable stand for fresh, sweet oranges and newly-picked peas in the pod. Beautiful meals they made.

On other days, my friends and I would take the metro (subway) to the Lisboa Zoo, and go roller skating in the outdoor skating rink, under huge oak trees. They played music to skate to. The walk from the metro station to the zoo passed by the Jardin Botanico, a spectacular botanical garden. I remember that I always used to admire the flowers while passing by.

My friends and I used to go to Rossio often -- an old-world plaza in the center of Lisboa, with a beautiful fountain and several statues, surrounded by shops and cafes. There was one little cafe called the "Pickwick", where one could sit at tall, round cafe tables on tall bar chairs, or stand at the bar, and have an espresso and a ham and cheese sandwich. Or some TO DIE FOR Portuguese gelado (which I can say is the best ice cream on the entire planet).



It was near this wonderful plaza that my friends and I wandered out of a discoteque at around 4:00 a.m. on April 25, 1974, only to find the streets crawling with machine gun-toting militia men; a military-led Communist takeover was hotly in progress. There were legions of large trucks driving around, packed with soldiers who would occasionally shoot into the air.



We managed to find one lone taxi and got ourselves home in a hurry, without incident. These communist revolutionaries then proceeded to deface with their slogans the beautiful fountain and statues of Rossio, slashing red spray paint across nearly everything in the plaza.

It was called the carnation revolution, because if you didn't wear a red carnation indicating your support of the revolution, you were deemed an enemy and dealt with accordingly. They didn't last long, in the scheme of things; Portugal's first constitutional government took office in 1976, and they have had a variety of governments since.

The red paint has long since been cleaned up. I hope that Portugal will be able to preserve the wonder and the beauty of this ancient city, full of warm and friendly people.

There was a certain smell of espresso and I don't know what else, all mixed up, which was the smell of Portugal. Sometimes when I drive by a local coffee roasting company, I get a brief hint which always reminds me of Lisboa. I do miss it. I would like to go back one day.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Hurricane: An Essay

HURRICANE

It all began while we were at anchor alongside the Portuguese Açores island of Santa Maria, a mountainous port large enough to berth only its own small fishing boats. We had dropped anchor about a twenty-minute ride by sea-sled or lifeboat from the small dock, giving us a view of what once might have been a volcano, leaving the tip of the mountain poking up through the blue-black waters of the Atlantic.

The weather had been fairly good up to now, with only cold, refreshing breezes and the normal rolling swells of the mid-Atlantic. Life on the ship had the feeling of a never-ending rolling side to side. But not so, now. The breezes had gained speed and force, carrying the spoken word far into the sky before one had a chance to hear what had been said. The swells of the sea had grown in size, and their increasing frequency was heaving the ship into a state of constant pitching and swerving. The sky was darkening into a thick black mass of clouds, rolling and twisting furiously above us.

A few of the crew were ashore at the time, and we sent out a lifeboat with the hopes of retrieving some of them. By this time, the Captain and I were leaning over the port rail on the foc'sle, inspecting the anchor chain. "Hey," he yelled, "check that chain for me!" as we both leaned over to check it.

The lifeboat returned empty but for its skipper and hookman, and the boat was raised and secured in its place on the prom deck. Arrangements were made by radio to accommodate the crew ashore in a hotel for the duration of the storm. We had the rest of the crew below decks, madly securing everything in sight. Nobody wants to be hit by a flying file cabinet! (Well, okay -- those things were already secured -- the regular course of business on a ship. But we secured all the small stuff.)

The wind was up around a force ten now (approximately 60 mph). The ship was being torn from its position, anchors dragging. Soon we would be beached against a cliff we were near. The Captain called an all hands evolution (used only in emergencies). Up on the bridge with him, soaking wet between the rain pelting down and the airborne froth from the ocean, we picked up anchor and steered for the lee side of the island. It took about two hours to make the usually 30-minute trip, fighting against the wind and waves. Once we arrived at our destination, we set a course head-on into the now twenty-foot waves. The winds were now up force 16 or 17 -- 120 mph. The waves were tall and sleek. Pointing up to a crest, the glassy waters turned into a boiling froth which stung the face as the winds hurled the bullets of water through the air. Between the flying foam and the thick wall of rain, our lookout (who had been tied to the flying bridge by a three-inch rope) could not see much further than one or two feet ... the Captain had me order her down. Waves were stretching and leaping up to the flying bridge (our highest deck, five decks from the water line) and smashing down upon us. Our bow was mostly under water, our ship pitching and tossing about.

The storm continued in this way for three days ... we sailed up and back the lee of the island many times, awaiting the end of the winds and waves. By the end of the third day, we felt the waves decreasing in size, the winds calming ... our hurricane left us as quickly as she had come. Smooth seas, electric air -- a deathly feeling of quiet apathy where there had been furious motion for so many hours.

We sent out a boat to get our stranded crew from the island, unsecured below decks, and got some sleep. Life at sea was back to normal; our hurricane had passed on to hurricane heaven and left Old Man Sea pacified once again.




(These are not pics of this storm nor of the ship I was on, but the waves kind of looked like this !)

Storms I've Been In

I've been through some pretty wild storms.

I first became interested in the weather when we lived for a year in Illinois. I was 11 at the time, and in sixth grade. Our entire class went to camp for 4 days, and there, I found a "cloud chart". After that, I got myself a barometer and other similar knick-knacks, and learned all about clouds, weather patterns, etc. It's a passion that's still with me to this day.

In Illinois, they have these tornado clouds -- cumulonimbus mamma (aka mammatocumulus). There's something about seeing tornado clouds marching across the sky. The air gets electric with anticipation. They are the wildest looking things -- sometimes you feel like you've suddenly come into consciousness in an alien world. They often have a green or orange tint to them. And they look Really Scary.





Sometimes during the night, the sirens would go off (tornado warning -- tornadoes have actually been spotted in the area), and we would open our windows and head for the basement.

I've already written about one storm in my "Memories of St. Charles" post. We used to get squalls like this all the time. The only other weather item of note that I recall about Illinois is when lightning hit the big tree in our front yard. I have NEVER in my life heard a noise that loud! CRACK! Split that tree right down the center.

I've been in many, many exciting thunderstorms in the Southeast and all up and down the Caribbean. They are black and roiling and noisy and exciting, and they dump a ton of rain in a short amount of time before moving on and leaving you in the hot, sunny and intensely humid aftermath. We've even had a few of those here in Southern California, as well as up in Northern California, with lightening going on for hours and hours, hailstones popping and bouncing, and wind wailing.

I've enjoyed cold, blustery winter storms while riding the double-decker bus down the bumpy cobblestones of Lisbon, Portugal, doing my Christmas shopping. That's a wonderful memory. The smell of the wet roads, everybody wrapped up in raincoats, the spirit of the season. I would do it again.

During the El Niño of 1997, my husband and I were living way up in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a miniscule town called Lompico, a few "blocks" from Loch Lomond. We lived off a grooved, rutted, cruddy dirt road, on an acre of absolute heaven -- redwoods, redwoods, and more redwoods. However, the drive down into Silicon Valley was torturous, and during El Niño, it was horrifying. As I worked in Mountain View at the time (45 miles each way), I had to get up quite early. It was still dark when I left. I drove on windy mountain roads that paralleled creeks and streams, flanked by cliffs on the other side. Quite often during that winter, trees would fall and block the roads, or mudslides, or bridges would go out. One morning, I didn't even realize until I got to work that I had narrowly missed being covered by a mudslide -- the mud spatter was all over the top of my car and dripping down the sides. I had gotten through just at the moment it was coming down. I saw it as I was driving home (the road home was on the other side of the creek).

We even had snow that winter, right there in Silicon Valley. That happens maybe once every 20 years. And from our office building, I watched as lightning hit a transformer, blew it up, and put the power out in the entire area. Got to go down the stairs in the pitch-black darkness (oh, yeah -- that was fun...).

But probably the most notable storm I've been in was a huge hurricane. It was an incredible experience. We were sailing amongst the Açores islands at the time, and spent three days going up and down the lee side of the islands while the hurricane passed over. We had a few crew members ashore and so had to stay in the area.

You have never seen such a thing as a hurricane at sea! The waves were so huge, you could touch them from the aft well deck (normally, the sea level was around 10 feet below). And the waves were easily 15 feet higher than the aft well deck. That means they were about 25-30 feet tall. And almost glassy. Huge, monstrous things rolling by like an invading force. The spray that blew off the tops of the waves stung the skin, it flew with such force. And the wind just howled. I know that the weather archives show this hurricane as being a Force 1 hurricane (winds 70 mph), but I vividly recall that the winds we were experiencing were 120 mph (perhaps they set the "force" designations at the point that hurricanes hit the mainland). It was an absolutely amazing experience.

We never did worry about a thing, though. Despite the wildness of the screaming wind and the magnificent waves and the mess of it all, we had a captain with years of experience as a master mariner, and he got us through it without blinking an eye.

It was absolutely awesome.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Memories of St. Charles, Illinois

For one year, we lived in "Hillcroft Manor" on Geneva Road, across the street from the Fox River, in St. Charles, Illinois. I was 11 at the time. I don't even know if it's still there. It was a beautiful house on a one-acre hill, built by a piano maker (so it had a lot of gorgeous woodwork). [Note: Some years after writing this post, I found out that indeed the house is still there. A real estate developer has been trying to tear it down. I hope he fails in this quest!]


When we first arrived in St. Charles, we stayed for a few weeks in the beautiful Hotel Baker. It was a very classy place, with a live elevator operator, a very old fellow by the name of George Washington Carver. He and I had the same birthday ! And I celebrated my birthday while we were there. I used to go into the fancy ballroom and play their piano.

I used to sometimes go into the woods that separated our house from the next house over (where, by the way, the 16-year-old boy was very cute and I had a crush on him), and cut little paths with my dad's machete. I would also go across the street to the Fox River with my little cassette deck with the condenser mic on it, and record the sounds of the river -- the birds, the water lapping at the shore, the breeze rustling through the leaves and branches of the beautiful, old trees. I remember once during the cold winter, my kid brother went out on the ice and, poor guy, fell in as the ice gave way. His friend pulled him to safety with a long branch, and my brother suffered the consequences (a bad case of bronchitis).

We also had a school project hatching chicken eggs, and I took three of the chicks home and raised them until we finally gave them to a farm owned by some friends. One of the chicks had a broken leg, due to it having been stuck to the inside of the shell. A farmer friend set the chick's leg with a toothpick, and it grew up to be a healthy and very ornery rooster.

I also remember babysitting the three children of some family friends who lived in a huge fixer-upper out near Aurora, in the corn fields (are they still there ?). The place had no glass in the windows (fixer-upper). I was babysitting a six-month old, a four-year-old and a six-year-old. And two goats. I was "into" weather then (still am !), and knew the different types of clouds and what they brought. I saw a nasty looking black squall on the horizon, and told the kids to get the goats into the basement and that they had three minutes to do it. And we all joined the goats. Lo and behold, within three minutes, there were tornadoes flying around in the sky (none touched down where we were), and a wonderfully noisy storm.

And last, but not least, I remember the Halloween party my folks let me have in the basement. (We had a finished basement.) We played "spin the bottle", and the loser had to kiss somebody (we're talking just a quick peck -- we didn't go any further than that back in those days !). I had to kiss the cutest guy in class, which was totally embarrassing.

Ahhhh, the memories !!!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Adventures in Tangier




I was shopping one afternoon in the Medina in the Moroccan city of Tangier. The souq (market) is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, cobblestone, often with a roof over the top, flanked by myriad shops selling anything and everything: leather goods, clothing (Moroccan, French and more), shoes, food, furniture, brass goods, you name it.

I had been to the souq on several occasions, but always with friends. This time, I was there on my own. I think I'd gone to find a birthday present for a friend.

I stopped to look at something at one of the shops, and the proprietor, a Moroccan fellow wearing a brown jalaba, grabbed me by the arm and started trying to sell me to another fellow there. They were arguing in Moroccan Arabic about how many Dirham I was worth.

Of course, as a teenager, nothing much fazed me. I punched the guy in the arm, and just the sheer surprise of it all caused him to let me go. I ran off, and that was that.

One of these days, I'm going to go back to Morocco, and I'm going to make a special stop at the Medina in Tangier. I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Running With the Bulls

Pamplona, Spain is not the only place in the world where people run with the bulls. One such other location is Terceira, Açores (the Açores are a group of stunningly beautiful Portuguese islands out in the Atlantic).

I ran with the bulls in Terceira. Not many people know this fact!

The air was fresh, with a salty ocean breeze. The winding streets were cobblestoned and absolutely packed with people. And I ran with the bulls there.

I've seen it written that the bulls are kept tethered on a line. I do not recall this being the case when I was there! The horns were tipped and therefore couldn't pierce one's body, but I think the bulls were running free ... at least, I thought so at the time! One friend of mine got tossed by a bull. He flew several feet through the air and landed unceremoniously on his bum, and boasted for days afterwards.

As for me, I was helped up onto a fence in the nick of time by several other youngsters (slightly younger than I), from which I breathed a sign of relief and watched the bull trample by.

It's interesting that at that age, nothing seems remarkable. For me, it was just another day off -- no different than hitting the cinema or romping at the beach.

It's nice to be able to say that I've run with the bulls. It's a good memory.