Moon Over Marco

Island Notes 96

I am now in the little latitudes of the Sunshine State.  Just follow the West Coast down to where the modern Floridian sprawl abruptly ends.  This is the southern tip of Marco Island where you will find the funky, backwater port called Goodland, home of the Little Bar.  It is also the end of civilization as we know it.  Venture further and there are only a few crossroad towns among primordial swamp, everglade and cypress.  The place is a mix of land and water where the start and end of either is difficult to distinguish.  Within this blend live ibis and gator, kingfisher and mosquito, python and panther, bent tail and all.

My dear friends, Dale & Karen, have lived on Marco—this southern West Coast outpost on swamp’s edge—for decades.  They know everybody on island including Tara, a fun loving bartender at the Little Bar.  As she always says, “I’m tall, feisty and somewhat educated!”  Tara phones us halfway through our sundowner beer tasting party to warn us that the three stools she has set aside won’t last for long.  After all Rosie Ledet, The Zydeco Sweetheart, and her band of bayou boys are about to take the stage.  It is hard to leave the brew and Dale’s stuffed jalapeños, but we depart immediately and drive ten minutes to Goodland.  It is nice to be well connected.

A full moon drips a platinum glow upon the Little Bar tonight.  This place is more waterfront restaurant than saloon.  The bar holds only 50 people or so, thus the name.  When we arrive it is packed, but our empty stools await and we dine on smoked amberjack and cheeseburgers in paradise.  With dinner complete, we simply swivel 180º around and there before us appears Rosie Ledet with her Cajun band.  They kick off the set with one of Rosie’s saucy favorites, Eat My Poussiere (dust).

Bubba, the 300-pound drummer, supplies the big beat.  The bass man does some fine slappin’ on his 5-string Fender.  The man with glasses, a Saints football cap and an overgrown smile strokes the washboard with abandon.  The guitarist gashes out blues and psychedelic licks that somehow blend like a fine gumbo with the band’s pulsing zydeco rhythm.  And then there is Rosie Ledet with her angelic, moonbeam face contrasting with the singer’s crusty Cajun soul.  She belts out songs while caressing one of her three lovely accordions that grace the stage.  The room explodes with that distinctive Louisiana sound that originates near the Big Easy.  The music is a sweet elixir after the uneasy week I just experienced.

I had been attending to my father who is now in a Florida facility that handles dementia patients.  I spent days observing my dad’s daze and disillusionment.  The mental changes rapidly taking over are difficult for him and his independent spirit.  His mind that served him so well for decades now fails at 91.  He looks out in horror when he realizes he cannot remember the death of my mom, his wife, ten years ago.  Part of that is self-imposed, “How could I forget?”  The other part is that he realizes how badly he is slipping away.  I hold his frail, wrinkled hand to provide assurance, the same hand that deftly led me across busy Cleveland streets when I was just a kid.  I try to tell him it is OK, that what he can’t remember I will fill in.  But both he and I know we are way out of our league.  His sadness for not remembering engulfs the darkened room.

So on this starry night I am glad to hear Rosie Ledet howl her soulful lyrics at the full moon.  The zydeco takes me away to another place.  She now sings Don’t Tell Me No as sweetly as the flower from which she gets her name.  It is a healthy sonic tonic after witnessing my dad’s mental demise.  And it is good to be back on island, even if it is far from my own.  I feel momentarily protected by its aquatic borders.  As I step outside into the cool evening, the silvery moon still spills its beauty upon Marco.  Rosie’s voice drifts over the distant bog and makes a swamp connection back to its Louisiana roots.  I get a sense of continuum.  It is a feeling that even if people come and go, live and die, there are other things that persist. The quiet beauty of the swamp, the glitter of moonlight on the water, and the primal need to belt out a song, dance like a fool or pound on a drum—they all still remain.  They are timeless, suspended in the perpetual momentum of life.  It is comforting in tonight’s darkness for me to know that the beat goes on.

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Back To The Jungle

This trip was not planned. KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, is the reason I find myself back in the jungle so soon.  After all, it had only been a month since I had trekked through Peru’s Amazon Basin.  But by October’s end, the airline was planning to cancel its daily Bonaire/Ecuador flight.  I had always wanted to see the country that derived its name from the Equator, so this was the time to go.  If I waited until after October, I would have to take a circuitous route from Bonaire to Curaçao to Colombia to Ecuador.  It would cost over $600.  Instead, I landed one of the last KLM flights for the slashed price of $288.

But perhaps the real reason I find myself back in the jungle is that I simple can’t resist returning.  You would think that I would recognize the dangerous, persistent lure of the place after reading The Lost City of Z, a tale of deadly obsession in the jungles of South America.  The book chronicles the futile attempts of Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British surveyor, who risked his life on repeated occasions looking for his El Dorado, the lost city of Z.  He was a man possessed.  On his last expedition in 1925, Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared into the Mato Grosso of Brazil and were never seen again.  My friend, Tom Spahr who turned me onto the book, warned me tongue-in-cheek, “Pat, set aside all thoughts of El Dorado and Z. This could get serious. Don’t go looking for Percy, please.”  I would never be so stupid.  Besides, I know the only reason that I find myself back in the jungle so soon is because of KLM canceling its Bonaire/Ecuador route.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.In fact, this trip did not even start in the jungle.  Rather, we began in the Ecuadorian highlands on the western slope of the Andes at a breath taking-away altitude of 11,000 feet.  We then dropped down to 6000 feet to experience a cloud forest at a private nature reserve.  Finally, I find myself at 3000-feet at another reserve called El Milpi, an ancient Indian word meaning the gathering place.  Scientists and scholars classified this place as tropical rainforest, but I am not fooled.  My old school sensibilities of sight, sound and smell tell me this is jungle—elemental, unforgiving and dense.Leading us through these three incredible environments is our Ecuadorian guide, Miguel Angel.  The only English that Miguel speaks are the multi-word monikers of the over 150 bird species that we get to see in five incredible days.  Miguel easily spills out terms like Purple-backed Thornbill, White-bellied Woodstar Hummingbird, and Black-tailed Trainbearer.  But after that, todo es en Español—everything is in Spanish.  And that is just fine.  I realize quickly that my aging cerebral linguistic hard drive is still working.  Words like mitar (the middle), izquierda (left) and hojas (leaves) and arbusto (bush) all come back.  These directional and descriptive words are essential to understanding Miguel’s rapid-fire directions when he spots an exotic bird in the dense entanglement of jungle biota.  As days pass by, we talk about our lives as well.  Miguel use to be a cowboy.  His wife, Patricia, harvests moras (blackberries) and tomate de árbol(an egg-shaped edible fruit). And they have three kids.  But Miguel also explains how he became a guide.   He was one of 50 chosen to study ornithology (the science of birds) on a special grant that had the goal of providing Ecuador competent nature guides for its budding eco-tourism industry.  Miguel completed the five-year training with his brother.  The other 48 grant recipients dropped out.  I joke with Miguel about his name in English—Mike Angel.  I tell him that it sounds like the name of a cunning detective.  He likes that a lot.

Blue-winged Mountain-tananger

Miguel Angel leads us through a maze of trails at El Milpi.  The place boasts eleven, waterfalls that give it that Back-To-Eden ambiance.  There are flashy black and yellow birds called Lemondrop Tanagers, blue Morpho butterflies the size of two of your hands, and according to Miguel, a snake that is an amphibian.  For the record, snakes are supposed to be reptiles. El Milpi lives up to its rainforest reputation.  One night I am wakened by pounding rain.  The sound on the lodge’s metal roof is deafening. No thunder, no lightning, no wind—just a relentless cascade of vertical water falling straight down from the heavens.  Just when I think the ferocity is maxed out, someone above amps up the deluge.  Torrential doesn’t even start to describe the fury.  The next morning the rain continues, but it is only a soft drizzle.Thus, we head back into the jungle following a wet, muddy trail.  We stop to watch a Choco Toucan in a tree.  This large tropical bird holds an unshelled nut in its oversized beak.  In fact, the beak appears to be about 40% of the bird’s entire length.  It looks like a cartoonist ‘s drawing for the Sunday comics.  After about five minutes, the toucan casually flips the nut into the air, catches it in a heartbeat and crunches down.  Meal complete, the bird breaks into a sweet, satisfying song.  Later we see dozens of Bronze-winged Parrots screaming overhead.  They are the outspoken extroverts of the jungle.  Throughout the day there are more birds, mega-sized insects and the incredible plant life. El Milpi delivers big time.

Yes, once again the tropics tantalize.  The jungle has paid off in spades otra vez.  But as we fly home a few days later from Quito International Airport, I gaze below for one last look.  I am already plotting my encore, but where?  Maybe Brazil for a visit to the once-famous rubber baron empire of Manaus on the Amazon.  Perhaps Colombia known for its steaming coastal tropics.  Or possibly Suriname with its lush, untamed wilderness.  Jungle obsession?  No, not me.  Now where can I find that next airfare deal?

The City of Eternal Spring

Quito

We had just spent five days in the wilds of Ecuador.  Now it was time to experience the country’s capital city of Quito, a throbbing metropolis of over 2.5 million people.  It is called the city of eternal spring due to the combination of its location–just a few clicks (16 miles south) under the equator–plus its 9000-foot-plus altitude.  The result is a subtropical highland climate with an annual average of 57° F.  I came prepared with layers of t-shirt, sweater and fleece.  My island blood runs super thin these days, especially at this nearly 2-mile high city.

We wisely chose to stay at the wonderful Hotel San Francisco de Quito, a funky, 300-year old colonial courtyard hotel located deep in Quito Viejo, the first of two UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites on the planet.  The architecture of the city is stunning, a treasure.  Quito has been justly awarded.

We were told not to miss El Mitad del Mundo, the Center of the World, on the outskirts of the city. A line down the center of the facility’s plaza is meant to mark the equator, and countless tourists over the years have had their pictures taken straddling this line.  Somehow I didn’t feel motivated to validate where I was on the globe.  Likewise, we were asked when, not if, we were traveling to Otavalo, a nearby indigenous town known for its grand market of textiles, tagua nut jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, hand-painted platters, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, and spools of wool.  But my home is already cluttered with alebrejes from Oaxaca, México, molas from Panama, and assorted exotic treasures from my travels in the Middle East.  If I need anything more, and that is questionable, I want to invest in some beautiful island paintings.

Thus, days are spent aimlessly roaming the streets of Quito with no direction home.  We witness the over-abundance of Catholic gold coating the many 400 year-old cathedrals that dot the old city.  We scan an outdoor photo exhibit, 6’ x 10’ black & white photos that address the lack of integration of black people in the 20th Century Ecuadorian society.  These haunting photos of despair are placed in a grand plaza just blocks from the Palace of the Governors, the government’s capital building.  And we stumble upon a procession honoring Our Lady of Guadeloupe (OLOG), the notorious Catholic vision-myth that supposedly occurred near México City in 1531.  Apparently, OLOG has her followers here in Ecuador too.  The band of drums, tarnished horns and beat up guitars leads the way with an out-of-tune, mantra-like, rhythm designed to keep the revelers marching relentlessly.  The musicians are followed by folks carrying a statue of OLOG in a covered cage, complete with colorful streamers tied to the peak of the structure.  Taking up the rear are the devout Catholics from the crowd who spontaneously join the march.  A man behind the statue throws fresh rose petals into the air with the fervor of a spaced-out Hari Krishna zealot.  This all makes sense as Quito and its surroundings are known for being one of the world’s leading exporters of cut roses.  As the noise and people pass, I ponder the patterns of petals left behind on the dirty asphalt street.  It is time to go home.

Hotel San Francisco de Quito provides the perfect escape from the madness of the city.  After days in the serenity of Ecuador wilds, the city has overwhelmed my senses.  Back in the room, I mix a couple of glasses of Panamanian rum with fresh lime.  We scale seven flights of stairs to the hotel’s rooftop and are awarded with a grand, 360° panorama of this pulsing South American city.  It is near sunset.  A rock band pumps out grunge music below at the Palace of the Governors.  Doves fly home in haste to settle in for the night.  The sunset explodes with orange and blood red making the nearby active volcano, Pichincha, blush at its impressive height of 17, 280-feet.  It hasn’t erupted since August 23, 2006.  I have faith that Pichincha and I will both sleep well tonight in the city of Eternal Spring.