Tension and heart


LOU LOU & PEA AND THE MURAL MYSTERY
By Jill Diamond, Pictures by Lesley Vamos.
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Today, Jan. 27, is Multicultural Children’s Book Day in the US, and as part of the effort to encourage diverse kids books, I’ve agreed to review a multicultural kids book. The event – reviewing the books – is an organized effort, and more information can be found here: Multicultural Children’s Book Day . There are a bunch of publishers and authors who sponsor this, and I’ve put that information down at the bottom of the review, so please do check it out. I managed to totally luck out on this, and got an absolutely delightful book by Jill Diamond with some lovely illustrations by Lesley Vamos. The best thing about Lou Lou & Pea, for me, is that it’s not pushing any kind of multicultural agenda. It’s just telling a story about two young girls one of whom happens to be Hispanic, and both of whom live in a Hispanic neighbourhood. It’s the first book in a series, and I really hope that the book does well, because these two girls are terrific characters.

Lou Lou, whose full name is Louise Bombay and Pea, (her real name is Peacock Pearl) are best friends who live in the El Corazón neighbourhood of an unnamed American city. Their normal lives – gardening and attending the local public school for Lou Lou; fashion, good manners and taking courses in art and fashion design at a private school for Pea, are disrupted during their formal Friday afternoon tea party when Pea’s mother asks the girls to deliver a quinceañera dress (15th birthday party) that belongs to Pea’s prima (cousin) to the cleaners, as it’s been stained.

On bringing the dress to Sparkle and Clean, the local drycleaner, laundry and fashion boutique, Lou Lou and Pea discover that this was no accident. The stain is a combination of grape juice and purple dye. Worse is the fact that Lou Lou’s favourite plant is killed that same weekend. Lou Lou had planned to enter Pinky, her autumn queen camellia into the local horticulture show, where she was sure the plant would win first prize. The earth around the dead bush smells of bleach – a sure killer of camellias.

As they move through their neighbourhood in the following days, the girls notice additions to the local wall murals – a white bunny with amber eyes in one, a magenta camellia flower which is a perfect match for Pinky’s in another and the ruined quinceañera dress in a third.

As the girls go on with their lives, attending school, planning a memorial for Pinky, and getting ready for Hallowe’en and the Día de los Muerotos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, the crimes and the mural additions continue: Lou Lou’s nemesis, Danielle Desserts, loses her beloved gold necklace, the Candle Lady, Elmira’s, shop is broken into and her savings for the Candle Lady’s Caribbean Cruise are stolen. As well, the sprinkler system in Sugar Skull Sarah’s studio is tampered with, destroying most of the hard work she’s done for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The question, of course, is who is responsible for both the crimes and the additions to the murals? Suspicion centres on Jeremy, Lou Lou’s new next door neighbour, who is altogether too friendly and who seems, through circumstantial evidence, to be the culprit. Although, it might be Rosa, Lou Lou’s shy, shadowy neighbour. Or Kyle, the Science Fiction geek and hall monitor. Or could it be someone else? The story climaxes at the Día de los Muerotos parade just after Hallowe’en, when the friends not only wow the crowds with their memorial altar to the departed camellia, Pinky but finally wrap up the case.

The fact that Pea is Hispanic, and so is most of the neighbourhood is woven seamlessly into the story. Most of the shop names are clearly Hispanic, and a lot of the dialogue and terms are Spanish, but the reader isn’t left grasping for meaning. It’s either clear in context, or the translations make internal story sense, since Lou Lou is not fluent in Spanish, although she’s learning, so she either gets it wrong, and is corrected, or the speaker translates quite naturally for her. As they’re going to the Candle Shop,

“Lou Lou read aloud the shop’s paper sign that she’d seen countless times: ‘SE VENDE LUZ Y SUERTE.’
‘We certainly need light and luck today to help Magdalena,’ Pea said.”

In sum, the fact that it’s a multi-ethnic book isn’t underlined – it’s just a story in which one major character is Hispanic and the girls live in a Spanish speaking part of the city. No big deal. Neither are the girls stereotyped, as either girly-girls or modern, “strong” girls who are deep into traditionally masculine attributes and interests. Both Lou Lou and Pea are well rounded, three dimensional characters – Lou Lou loves to garden, isn’t too concerned with fashion or her appearance and tends to be casual and relaxed. She’s not as thoughtful as she might be, but she cares about her friends and is quick to adapt her behaviour to make other people feel comfortable, including being as formal as possible at the Friday teaparties and as polite as she can be when necessary. Pea is very concerned with cleanliness and appearance, other people’s comfort and she adores fashion, but she’s also analytical, observant and decisive. The girls are girls, a mix of traditionally feminine attributes and modern, more traditionally “masculine” characteristics.

Jill Diamond has created a world that I think we’d all like to live in, and the name she’s given the neighbourhood reflects the atmosphere of the book. El Corazón means “the heart” and this community has heart. Yes, there is danger; the crimes aren’t just harmless pranks. Cash is stolen, merchandise is ruined and property is destroyed, and there is tension through the book, but it’s clear that this is an anomaly in the community.

And it is a community with corazón. People know their neighbours, care about them and look after each other. It’s not overt, or particularly underlined, it’s just there. This, along with the names and personalities of the characters is a major strength of the book. The people who live in El Corazón are quirky and full of individuality and they pop out of the page without overshadowing Lou Lou or Pea. The street names (Lucky Alley) and the store and organization names (Sparkle and Clean, Cupcake Cabana, Hello Horticulture! Society) also contribute to a lovely, gentle, fantastical “ago” feeling even though there are modern touches, like cellphones and blue spiked hair. The illustrations are done in a style that reminds one of illustrations from books from the 1940s and 50s, and the entire package welcomes and enfolds a reader in that gentle and welcoming world.

Definitely a book I’d recommend for kids who like mysteries, enjoy whimsy and are between 10 and 13.

Here’s the scoop about MCBD and the sponsors:

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.

Current Sponsors:  MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include Scholastic, Barefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. Roman, Audrey Press, Candlewick Press,  Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTV, Capstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle Swift, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee& Low Books, The Pack-n-Go Girls, Live Oak Media, Author Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books

 Author Sponsor include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica AppletonSusan Bernardo, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Maria DismondyD.G. DriverGeoff Griffin Savannah HendricksStephen HodgesCarmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid Imani, Gwen Jackson,  Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana LlanosNatasha Moulton-LevyTeddy O’Malley, Stacy McAnulty,  Cerece MurphyMiranda Paul, Annette Pimentel, Greg RansomSandra Richards, Elsa TakaokaGraciela Tiscareño-Sato,  Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

MCBD Links to remember:

MCBD site: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta

Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teachers-classroom-kindness-kit/

Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: http://bit.ly/1sZ5s8i

Happy MonDay


Mother’s day is over for another year, but I’ve been reflecting on it as I’ve read all the kudos and gratitude and, yes, grousing about it on the internet. I don’t “celebrate” it and we didn’t teach our kids to pay much attention to it either. There’s a bunch of reasons for that:

In addition to the living children I have and whom I cherish and take an enormous amount of pride and joy in, there are three: James, Tabitha and Juvenal who didn’t make it long enough to be born. I remember them every day of my life, and think about them a lot.

My mother is dead, and when she was alive, she abused both my brother and myself and left us with deep and lasting wounds. And even though, over the course of my life, I’ve realized that she did the best she could with the world’s smallest “good mother” toolkit, and deeply regretted the pain she caused us, I don’t have a really strong inclination to either mention her or celebrate her mothering of my brother and me on this day.

Yet, while I don’t think of Mother’s Day as a really great day, neither do I feel resentful that other people are celebrating their relationships with their mothers, or missing the ones who have died, or mourning the children they’ve lost. I don’t feel left out or as if I’m somehow cheated and marginalized because everybody’s going ga-ga over their mothers or remembering their lost little ones. In fact, I’m happy to see that so many people can appreciate the work that goes into being a mom, that they recognize, even if only one day of the year, that it’s hard work, and it takes dedication, commitment and a lot more energy than anybody ever expected. I empathize with the mums who’ve also lost babies and children, and understand that it’s a bittersweet day for them, too.

What bothers me about it is when those like me, who had a less than stellar mother, or who’ve lost children, or, unlike me, never had ’em in the first place, jump up and down complaining that it’s wrong and somehow wicked for everybody else to have a good time and share the good parts of having been mothered, while it leaves them feeling sad and left out in the cold. Or who insist, like Anne Lamott, that it somehow marginalizes women who’ve chosen not to have children or that it “makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children feel the deepest kind of grief and failure” while somehow perpetuating “the dangerous idea that all parents are superior to non-parents.”

I, the child of a dead, abusive mother, I, who most of the time feels like a failure as a mother, take issue with this. Having children isn’t the highest calling, it’s doesn’t make a parent superior to a non-parent and I’m not sure how a non-sentient day can pepetrate anything. Furthermore, I can attest, personally, that there is NOTHING on the outside of my skull that can make me feel more like a failure than the thoughts already squirreling around on the inside of my skull. I suspect the same is true for most people who feel like failures. It’s the voices INSIDE our heads we have to shut up, not the ones having a good time on the outside.

That’s what bothers me most about this: the implication that because somebody somewhere is having a horrible time on a celebratory day, because of the day, we should ban the day. That because some of us don’t happen to have good associations with motherhood, nobody should celebrate it, because, goodness knows, we don’t want anybody to feel excluded or bad or anything as awful as grief. I have news for you: grief is a part of life, and while the pain and the empty space inside never completely go away, you can come to terms with it, you can deal with it and find joy and happiness in other parts of your life. Yes, certain days, certain colours, certain places, certain songs will always trigger the tears, but honestly, I’d rather have that than feel nothing at all. It’s a part of being alive and it means that inside me, that person still lives.

So, my suggestion is that if you don’t want to or you don’t enjoy celebrating Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Parent’s Day, Valentine’s Day or any other Day, go find other people who feel the same way you do, and do something with them that will let you be happy. Let those who do want to find joy in the day, do so without raining on their parade.

HAPPY MON-DAY! And to all the mothers out there: I hope you had a stellar day.

I am ashamed of my faith.


I spend a great deal of my time on the internet, and on Facebook. A lot of the time, what I find posted is enlightening, educational, and entertaining. Some of the time, it’s maddening, disgusting and cringe-worthy.

Until today, though, I have never been ashamed. I am now. I am ashamed of my faith, because of something my brothers and sisters in Christ are doing.

This is not only not okay, it violates everything our faith, our God and our church teaches us.

The recent decision by the United States Supreme Court on same sex marriage has heated the debate, both on and off line. There has been more than enough vitriol, hate and viciousness spewed over this topic, by all sides, to put the Enemy in a millennial long coma of joy over the way we’ve treated each other.

I reproduce the two messages that appeared on my Facebook wall this morning, right after I’d attended Liturgy for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul:

Today, [a number of] Orthodox Christians banded together to hunt out private, secret and closed groups for Orthodox Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. Self-identified “protectors of Orthodoxy” emailed celibate LGBTQ bloggers with nasty slurs and threats.

I need to remind you that an LGBTQ and/or same-sex attracted person, married in the Church, and their children do not need to spend this night worried about their private struggles being publicized online. I need to tell you that a teenager said, “the thought of being outed to every Orthodox Christian in the world makes me want to die”. I need to tell you that two parents of LGBTQ teenagers have been PMing me frantically, fearing for their children’s safety. I have not been able to offer them any realistic comfort.

The fact is, when an online mob gets going like this: vulnerable people commit suicide, and even when they don’t, it’s an unbelievably traumatic experience. Sadly, today, Orthodox Christians on social media need to be told this and I can’t do it alone. Everyone, for the sake of the woman taken in adultery and Our Lord who forgave her, please put a stop to any online mobs seeking out LGBTQ Orthodox groups.

Thank you and please continue to pray for us!

And this:

 Subject: To the heretic homos out to destroy Christ’s church

“This is to inform you that I will be personally contacting each of your bishops to alert them of your heresy. There will be no homosexuals allowed in Christ’s Church. You are not fit to share in the chalice, nor the other mysteries save Holy Confession should you fall to your knees after excommunication. The Holy Orthodox Church has never been silent about the condemnation of heretics. The attempted takeover of Arius was not permitted, nor will your sins be. The time has come for the homosexuals to be removed from the Church. Repent and see the true light, or leave the true faith alone and become an Episcopalian. I have contacted only a few today. I will be notifying more Orthodox-in-name-only homos tomorrow and every day hereafter.”

Outing same-sex attracted, transgendered people to the heriarchs of the church or to the online community, people who are struggling to live a faithful, celibate, Orthodox life within the church in accordance with their and our beliefs is not Christian, not Orthodox and needs to stop.

Christ came for us all. Every single conceived human being is capable of salvation, regardless of who they are, what they’ve done or how they act, as long as they are repentant and beg for mercy from our Lord. That means everyone. Me, you, my worst enemy, your worst enemy, the most evil mass murderer or serial killer on the planet, aborted and miscarried babies, venerable babas, LGBTQ persons struggling in the church to be faithful, repentant servants of Christ and self-outed, secular gays and trans. No exceptions. Not even the people who are doing this – they also are capable of salvation.

Nobody, absolutely NOBODY has the right to out anyone for any reason to the the church heirarchs or the internet mob, which has ruined careers, marriages and lives. It has forced people into hiding, into moving far from their families and friends, it has forced people to live a life of isolation and terror, and it has driven people to take their own lives.

We are called, regardless of our own private opinions of people and their behaviour, to treat each other as icons of Christ, to love everyone as we love ourselves, and as we love God. Everyone. For someone who professes to believe in and follow the faith given to us as a precious gift by the God-man who died on a cross for us all, to engage in this behaviour is worse than reprehensible, worse than hypocritical. You’ve had the example before you, in the person of Jesus Christ. You step up to the chalice and you eat his Body and you drink His Blood. You say the words: “Make us worthy to partake of the heavenly and awesome Mysteries of this sacred and spiritual table.”

Yet you would drag your brothers and sisters from their homes, from the chalice, from kneeling before God in confession and contrition and stone them as the woman taken in adultery was stoned. Remember what he said: “Those without sin, let them cast the first stone.” Look to your own hearts, see to the beam in your own eye, and realize that what you are doing to our brothers and sisters you are doing to Christ, and your actions will haunt you. You will face God on the last day and he will ask you, “Why did you do this to me? When you outed her and her family, you outed me. What you do to the least of these, you do to me.” You are throwing Christ to the wolves, to the mob, and you are driving the nails into His palms and plunging the spear deep into his side. Stop. Stop it now.

The Last (very last) Leg


The billboard was the last amusing moment for the next several hours. I’ve realized that the more flying I do, the less I enjoy it. The actual flying is great. I love take offs and landings, I love looking down from such a great height and seeing the land below – especially if its night and the lights are illuminating the world, but the hassle to get to where I want to be is becoming far greater than any benefits from the time I save, and I hate airport architecture, design and decor. About the only upside to this part of the trip was that because of the way airports have to be built I definitely got my day’s exercise and then some.

We got to the airport. Because of construction, the driver said, he couldn’t let us off right at two of the terminals – he would split the difference and park at a point between them. People for Airlines A, B and C would go to the right, to Terminal 1 and those of us for Airlines D, E and F, would head to the left. People for Airlines G and H got delivered to the door in the third terminal, lucky people!

He unloaded our bags and we trundled along until we saw an outdoor Delta check-in booth at our terminal. The guy behind the counter called us over, but instead of checking us in, got on the phone, and then told us that the people inside at the Delta counter needed to see us, but didn’t say why. So we went in, lined up and worried. When we got to the front, we were tagged for overweight luggage, which I knew was going to happen, but there was no indication that anybody inside had wanted to see us or talk to us. I’m still not sure why we were sent inside instead of checking the bags right there, unless it had to do with the overweight luggage – but the outdoor guy never touched our bags, so it remains a mystery. One other passenger suggested it had to do with charging us extra for the bags, but . . .. I dunno.

The Delta guy who did the check-in for us decided to play games – first both bags cost $x each. Then, as we were getting the credit card out, he said, no, my bag cost $x, Al’s (which admittedly was heavier than mine) was almost twice that. Why the change, I have no idea. But we had to pay or leave stuff behind, so we paid. Had we been thinking, or had the guy been the least bit helpful, we could have saved ourselves a whack of cash, as we found out later.

But we were feeling the pinch of time. Between the delay at Homeland security and the delay waiting for the bus, we were getting close to boarding time for our flight, and we still had to go through security, so we weren’t as cool and calm as we needed to be – or at least I wasn’t.

But we got the bags checked, got ourselves checked in and then went through security. For some reason, we were supposed to take our computers out of their carry bags and put them in a separate container. I did, Al didn’t. Instead of just asking him to do that, or doing it themselves, they ran his computer bag through, rejected it, pushed him out of line and made him do it all again and lectured him about it. At this point, we needed to be at our gate – boarding was due to start very soon. Or so I thought, so tensions were rising. Well, mine was. And we were hungry – it was well after 2:00 and we hadn’t eaten since 7:30 am. (Yes, four hours to get through customs and what should have been a 10 minute bus ride to the airport.)

We grabbed some food and sat down near our gate to wait for our plane. It arrived about 10 minutes after we were supposed to start boarding.  Because it was a commuter flight, people disembarked first. Just about the time we should have started boarding, they announced that due to the weather in Minneapolis, there would be a delay. I went up to see if our connecting flight would be affected, and got told “Well, you can go to the office, or you can wait in line, but by the time you get up to my desk, you probably won’t have much choice of seats.”

?

Shake head.

?

I tried to ask what she meant, but she dismissed me with a “if your flight is more than an hour after arrival, you’re okay.” When was our arrival, I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. Well. That was less than helpful. But she had already turned to the next passenger. A helpful fellow passenger pointed out that if our flight missed the connection, we’d be automatically bumped to the next one. Which was great, except that if that happened, we’d probably miss the connecting Vancouver/Victoria flight and be stuck in Vancouver overnight and not be booked on a next morning flight. This wasn’t looking good. So, what weather was keeping us delayed and would it affect our next flight? Apparently I wasn’t the only one wondering this, and a home truth that should have been obvious to anybody with two operative brain cells became apparent.

You’ve just made an announcement in an airport with free WiFi, to customers who all have smart phones, laptops or (in my trailing edge case) netbooks about the weather in the destination city. You aren’t making sense or being helpful when people ask you questions. So what’s the logical next step for all of those frustrated travelers with smartphones, laptops, netbooks and free WiFi?

Got it in one.

There is no weather in Minneapolis. It’s cloudy. That’s it. No fog, no wind, no rain, no electrical storms, no snow, no sleet, no freezing rain, nothing that would impact our landing (or for the many of us making a connection, our further flights). So . . . what’s going on?

20 minutes later she made another announcement apologizing for the “mistake” and explaining that there was a problem on the wing that needed to be taken care of. Boarding would commence in a few moments. Turns out that the whateveritis that de-ices the wing at high altitude was malfunctioning. Now why couldn’t she have said that in the first place?

We finally boarded, buckled in and took off. And then we got an angel in disguise. The pilot announced that he knew many of us had tight connecting flights and he was going to do his level best to get us there with time to spare. (Ours was more than tight – we were expected to land about 15 or 20 minutes after our connecting flight had left.) He explained that normally they fly a certain path at a certain speed in the interests of economy. But tonight, he had changed the flight path to shorten the journey and was (in an aviation type of way) flooring it. Engaging the after burners? Whipping the seagulls? Feeding the squirrels amphetamines? Overwinding the rubber bands? I don’t know, but whatever it was, he expected to get us in about 15 minutes earlier than expected. The trip was uneventful – boring even. Which was good at this point. Boring was just what I wanted. I got to sit and read uninterrupted for three whole hours, look out the window at dark overcast and be thoroughly uncomfortable in the airplane seat. It was great.

The pilot saved us better than 15 minutes. Enough time that our connecting flight was still on the ground when we got in. I hope they give him a raise! Not only that, but he asked the passengers who didn’t have a connection to please stay in their seats until we’d gotten off. No big deal, that’s standard, and I’ve heard it before and the usual response is to act as if nobody asked anybody to do anything except get off the plane as fast as they can. Except this time people listened. They stayed seated until we were all off! I’m not sure that it really helped, since 3/4 of the passengers had tight connecting flights, but I really appreciated the fact that the ones who didn’t stayed seated for us.

We hustled our buns (and caught one of those golf cart thingees that trundle around airports, giving rides to desperate connecting flight passengers like us) and were the very, very, very last people on the plane. You know in movies when the leading character tears hell bent for leather for the flight and they slam the plane door on his coat tails and the plane is taxiing even as she reaches her seat? Yeah, that was us. And no, it doesn’t feel cool and sexy at all – it’d be embarrassing except that it wasn’t our fault, it was just tense and stressful.

This flight wasn’t quite as uneventful. Lots of turbulence, which I liked. We got into Vancouver on time, made it through customs faster than I’ve ever been through in my life (and I’ve never had any problems with customs), and got another day’s exercise hustling our buns over to the domestic departures terminal, then checked into our flight. And found another angel in disguise.

Remember the overweight luggage? Well, when we weighed it for Air Canada, it was still overweight (no surprise there). The woman suggested that since we had time, if we had an extra bag, we could pay the $20.00 over bag fee and distribute the extra weight so as to save ourselves about $200.00 in overweight charges. We did that. And had very dark thoughts about the Delta guy back in Fr. Lauderdale, who never even thought to be anywhere close to that helpful.

We considered food briefly, but everything was closing up (it was only 9:30ish pm, for crying out loud!) and we decided to just get to the gate and wait until the flight to Victoria was called. Boarding was late for some reason, but we got on, flew over, got off and got our luggage, stepped outside to see the one, the only and last cab drive away. It was late – after midnight, I think. It was chilly. I was tired, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to get home. However, once again, we were rescued. The security guard told us he’d already called the cab company and they were sending more cabs out to pick us up.

We got in at sometime after 12:30. And did the cats greet us ecstatically, purring and rubbing our ankles and demanding pets and cuddles and kibble? If you think so, I want some of what you’re smoking.

No. Sam was lying in the front hall and demanded to know why we were so late coming in so he could be let out. He had to tolerate cuddles (I don’t usually pick him up and cuddle him – he’s not at all a lap cat) because I’d missed him so much. He tolerated it with very poor grace and kept peering around my shoulder at the door. Minou was all complaints about how badly Herb and Charmaine had treated her and what a bully Sam was (I know she was lying through her little front teeth about our house sitters – if anything, they spoil her more than we do, which is saying something). Sam, we learned later, actually had bullied her unmercifully.

In the morning (or later that morning) we’d figure out what things had changed since we’d been away and what progress had been made on the construction next door – but for now it was cuddle the (unwilling) cats, let Sam out and collapse into bed. When we did the time calculations, it was no wonder we were exhausted – we’d been up for 24 internal hours. Not an awful, horrendous trip home, but certainly not the way I’d have preferred to end our journey. Still, we got home safe, everything we’d taken was there, nothing was broken and the house hadn’t burned down. A win all round.

It’s been a ride – both the trip and writing about it. Thank you for coming with me, and I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned, because the next adventure is right here at home – the saga of the house next door. That one won’t be nearly as upbeat, but I suspect there will be some chuckles.

I found it!


You know all those vacation ads of perfect people on perfect beaches, in perfectly clear and beautifully blue and green tropical waters? The ones where the sun is shining down, and the waves are breaking just ideally, never too close but not too far from the suntanning bodies lying on blindingly white sand while a little way away more perfect people are riding the most beautiful horses on the planet and further down the beach there’s a volleyball game going on and you just know that all these people won’t need to shower sand grains out of tender places at the end of the day (because, you know, they’re perfect)? Those photos?

I found the place they take them.

half moon cay 2

The Bahamas, just off the coast of Florida. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is actually over 700 islands, cays and islets (size is the determining factor in whether it’s an island, a cay or an islet, but don’t ask me what the break point is). If you look at a map, we were on Isla Pequena San Salvador (Little San Salvador Island). It’s a small island (or a cay) between Cat and Eleuthra Islands. Holland America has leased the cay/island from the Bahamas and renamed it after the major bay – Half Moon Cay. It’s about seven kilometres long and two wide with a two kilometre long lagoon in the middle of it (which is protected and is a sea life preserve).

half moon cay 3

As far as I can tell, the Holland America parent company only has the use of the Bay and a few miles of the island itself – most of the rest of it is without trails or roads, and we encountered a number of “not allowed beyond this point, very dangerous” signs while on our walk. If you google it or look at the satellite image of it, you’ll see what I mean.

The only people on the island are connected to the Holland America company – either guests, like us, or ship’s crew on leave, or working for our comfort, or support people who are ferried over from Cat and Eleuthra Islands (an hour and a half ride one way). So it’s the “perfect” island – everything there is for our comfort and convenience, and in the areas meant for us, it’s been groomed and landscaped and arranged to be the “perfect” tropical island. There are caretakers who live on the island, mostly to care for the horses, but again, it’s all in aid of keeping the illusion of a perfect world alive for us paying guests.

And yes, on this island you can ride horses: on the trails or in the surf. You can jet ski, lounge on the amazing white sand beaches, swim in the turquoise, clear waters, paddle with pet manta rays, bike (or scooter) around the roads and trails, take a nature hike or rent a cabana and relax in the privacy of a small house for the day.

We opted to get active and with four other people take a nature/historical walk around the parts of the island accessible to us. Well worth the time, even though I ended up wishing I’d brought my bathing suit from the ship – that beach and that water looked delicious! It was very, very hot but the humidity had dropped significantly, for which I was really grateful. Also teaching both Al and I that it’s the humidity we have problems with, not the heat.

Our walk was scheduled for 10 am, and we arrived there around 9:15, so walked around the roads and paths to get a feel for the place. And the first thing we encountered was a couple who asked us if we’d be witnesses for their wedding. They were joking (I think), but it was kinda nice to see some romance on a picture perfect tropical island! It was one of the ship’s officers and one of the singers from the ship – they looked really in love and amazingly happy. So maybe there is a wedding in their future. Best of luck to them, if so! They also weren’t all that social – a couple of conversational exchanges and a laugh or two and they were away on their own.

Turns out they do have a little chapel there in case people want to renew their vows – I gathered from the signs that actual first time, till death do us part spur of the moment shipboard romance weddings aren’t on the agenda here. You can get married on this island, but not on the spur of the moment.

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If you google images of Half Moon Cay, you won’t see the island we saw on our walk.

half moon cay 1Al still had the camera, so I don’t have any of the photos we took to show you a comparison.

The walk took us off the regular paths into the brush so we could see the plants and wildlife of the island. I didn’t take notes, but the guide gave us some good information not only about the plants that grew there, but some of their medicinal uses, and warned us off some of the less pleasant ones – there are some that are like poison oak and poison ivy. The wildlife isn’t terribly dangerous – wild chickens and roosters, three different kinds of lizard, and various birds. We climbed a hill and saw the ruins of a house that had been used centuries before when other people had come to the island to fish and hunt, and raise chickens, whose descendants still inhabit the island (the chickens, not the people). I suggested to our guide that they hunt the chickens and serve ‘em up to the guests, but she didn’t think that would go over well with the chefs, for some reason.

We also got to watch manta rays in the lagoon – neat, wonderfully graceful beings who swooped and flew through the water and wanted to play with the people who had come to learn about them.

We wandered along deserted paths and were far from the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew, which suited us fine. And when we came out onto one other part of the lagoon, noticed our “wedding” couple wandering the beach a ways down from us, obviously very happy being along together.

We visited the “farm” where they cultivated and seeded the plants used in the gardens and plantings around the bay, and in the foods served on the island, and met a pet iguana of the gardener. I’d have like to spend more time there to see just what they grew and how and what they did, but we were there for only around 10 minutes and most of that was listening to the gardener talk about his iguana.

The walk was a leisurely hour and a half (to cover a mile and a half) with lots of stops to try and find lizards (those suckers can MOVE!), or look at the house ruins (I would have liked a bit more time to poke around those). We actually didn’t leave for the walk until almost 11 am, so it was in the worst heat of the day, and even in the shade, I was glad we weren’t trying to break any walking speed records. By the time we took a break at the manta pool, we needed the break. I managed to down over a litre of water in less then five minutes. It was lovely!

After the break, we strolled back to the main guest area and then bid goodbye to the guide and had lunch. Barbequed chicken and hamburgers and fresh fruits (some of which were grown on the island, I think) and veggies.

It was a lovely island, and the parts that had been built up as the resort were gorgeous, but honestly? I preferred the trails we walked along, and the hills we climbed that were less than perfect settings for tropical vacation photo ops, and that let us enjoy the silence and the stillness of the place.

It was a good day, but not as good as some of our other excursions. Maybe if the walk had been longer, or I’d gone swimming, but it felt like too perfect a place – not something that you could live in for long. I was glad to get back to the ship, even though it was our very last full day.

Tomorrow we would be disembarking in Fort Lauderdale and catching a plane to fly home.

Gracious living, then and now.


We took a winding, scenic route to the old city, and the minute we could see in the walls, it was clear that there was no way the bus was going to fit into the streets. We’d be walking, which was just fine by me.

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While the old city is walled and had cannon mounted at one time,

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and is  a historical artifact in its own right (although not, like the fort, designated a world heritage site by the UN), it’s still in use, and cannonballs are now used for decoration rather than defense.

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The walls, where the soldiers barracks used to be are now tourist stalls,

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and we walked down past the stores and up onto the walls of the city, where we saw the guard kiosks.

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Al and I were totally unprepared for the aggressive sales we found in Cartegana. Street vendors were all over the place, and while they respected your “no”, there were always more of them. And it is a bargaining culture – they offer $50.00 and you counter with $10 and worked your way to a compromise that satisfies both parties. We’re not bargainers, Al and I, and we were really uncomfortable with the fact that not only the street vendors were aggressive and bargainers, so were the propeitors of all the stores – we stopped in some of the more upscale tourist shops in the new city and found the same thing. They stand outside the stores, trying to talk customers in, and once you’re in, salespeople follow you around until you leave the store. When I tried to look at emeralds (to admire, not to buy, but boy, I saw some nice stuff!) I was shadowed by a clerk, who kept trying to show me things she thought I’d want. She wasn’t being rude or hard sell, she was just there, always, no matter where in the shop I went. Very disconcerting for me, since I don’t respond well to that kind of attention. And the prices weren’t fixed even in those stores – the listed price was a starting point.

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But in old city, most of the shops were closed for the day and except for the street vendors, we were able to walk and look and listen to our guide describe the city, what it had been and what it was now. We saw the place Marlon Brando had stayed while filming in the old city back in 1968, and admired the feel, look and scents of the place. It’s a living museum. The buildings inside the walls are now hotels, condominiums, city administration buildings, shops, café’s and nightclubs, as well as churches and cathedrals, but the look and feel of the exteriors is preserved and it’s got a lovely, warm (that has nothing to do with temperature) charm.

P1020131This would be an upper class dwelling, as it’s three storied.

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This is middle-class – two stories

 

And also middle class – two stories.

The area was originally divided into poor, middle-class and upper class buildings, and it was easy to tell which building fit into which class – single story buildings were for the poor, two story were for middle class and three were for the rich. Every residence had a walled courtyard, no matter how single story they were.

P1020146This used to be a private house, three storied, and is now a hotel. It’s an incredibly upscale area with condo units going for around $1M US or better. We’re looking through the entry into the courtyard. Directly across from the main entrance is the entrance to the stables, which formed one of the wings of the house – stable on the ground floor, living area above it and a private, walled garden of your own.

There had been a number of convents, monasteries and churches in the original city, all of which were either hotels or condominiums now. One is now a museum, and the city’s cathedral is also in old town.

P1020164St. Pedro Claver Church

We stopped at St. Pedro Claver Church, named for the local saint, who is known as the slave to the slaves, the Apostle of the Blacks and is the patron saint of seafarers. The church houses his relics and has the museum in the monastery attached to the church. The church building has been there since before St. Pedro’s time (he arrived in Cartagena in 1610 and died there in 1654) under a different name. It was renamed for him after his canonization in 1888. The courtyard (or cloister) was lovely – walled on one side with the monastery, and on the other by the church, it was shady, large and relatively cool. There were paths around gardens that housed palm trees and local plants (many of which we grow in tiny form as house plants – I saw sanseveria, coleus, and several other types I can’t name.) There were two street vendors with tame parrots – colourful fellows, who would sit on your arm for a fee. Right up until one of them tried to bite the fellow holding his mate!

We entered the San Pedro church and were able to get a look at St. Pedro’s relics. He was a Jesuit priest who made it his special mission to minister to the slaves of the area, and since Cartegana was such a major port, there were always slave ships bringing people from Africa to work in the mines in South America, or to be sold for transport to the Carribean and Central America. Ten thousand a year.

P1020174Altar in the far background, the relics are below it in a glass walled coffin.

He would climb into the ships and begin his work before they were even offloaded, and continued ministering to the slaves in and around the city for over 40 years. It’s estimated that he ended up baptizing over 300,000 people in his lifetime. When he visited slaves on the plantations and at the mines, he refused the hospitality of the owners and overseers and instead stayed in the slave quarters. Needless to say, he annoyed the local authorities (including his bishop), because he advocated for more humane treatment for the slaves, but city authorities bowed to popular demand and gave him an elaborate and public funeral.

The relics are housed beneath the altar in a glass sided coffin, and he’s robed magnificently – probably far more richly than he ever was in his lifetime, considering he died neglected, starved and beaten by the ex-slave sent to care for him in the last years of his life.

There was more to see and more to do – of which we’ll learn tomorrow, and we’ll find out what problems the kitchens on the ship had at dinnertime. In the meantime, enjoy the day!

Go West, young man (okay, oldish lady)! No, wait – east! No, North!


North! to Alaska!

No, wait.

North to the Caribbean. It sounds very odd, but that’s what we did!

One quick note before we begin our transit: the photos you see aren’t necessarily in the order in which they were taken or the order in which we went through the Canal. I’ll try to note where each one was taken, but don’t worry about it if I don’t – the point of them is to show you things, not photo document our trip through the canal in the order we snapped the pictures.

We were up and out the door by six am, to see our official entry into the Panama Canal. That happens at “The Bridge of the Americas” which is the bridge that spans the Canal, supposedly linking North and South America.

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P1010790And apparently, billboards are an international eyesore. (Bridge of the Americas)

The captain had authorized the opening of the bow on Deck 4, so we were served Panama Rolls and coffee, which was lovely – they’re a sweet bun and were really nice. Note the ship just ahead of us in that first photo: we were just behind that all day.

To give you a better idea of where we were going:

1024px-Panama_Canal_Map_ENWe entered near Panama City and sailed north westish through the locks and the cut to Lake Gatun, then out another cut to the Caribbean Sea.

Here’s a side view:

Panama CanalThe locks lift us up 86 feet to the level of the lake and then take us down again to sea level.

The Miraflores locks are in two parts: two steps just at the beginning of the canal, then through Miraflores Lake and into the third step to get us up the final few feet to the Gaillard/Culebra Cut that leads to Gatun Lake.

It took a while to get to the first lock – we passed a container port directly after we came under the bridge and moved slowly (even more slowly than we had been at sea, which was about 4 knots) toward the Miraflores locks. The container port is for ships too big to enter the locks.

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P1010792These are taken on the Pacific side – that’s Panama city in the background.

They offload on one side of the Canal, the containers are then taken by railroad to the other side, where they’re loaded onto other ships.

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P1010809Taken between Bridge of the Americas and Culebra Cut

Panama City stayed with us for a long time:

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P1010800Miraflores Lake, after the first two locks

We got a look at the expansion site for both sets of locks, as well. Al had seen a close up of the Gatun expansion on his expedition the day before, but here it was from the ship:

P1010893That’s the Bridge of the Americas in the background. The expansion is to allow larger ships and more ships through the Canal, as well as to aid in reducing the amount of water that is used in moving ships through the Canal. I think they said that 86 million gallons was used in every lock for each step either up or down. It’s all gravity fed, but that’s a heck of a lot of water, and while Gatun Lake is huge and they very carefully regulate it, and it’s in an area with a massive amount of rainfall, that’s still a lot of fresh water they don’t need to be pouring into the ocean several times a day. These new locks will reuse 62% of the water expended in each use of the lock.

A pair of tugs picked us up just after we entered the Canal and stuck closely to us until we were into the first of the Miraflores locks. Then another pair did the same between the Miraflora locks, on the lake, and a third pair escorted us through the Gaillard Cut to the edge of Gatun Lake, when they turned and headed back toward the locks.

They weren’t pulling us, they weren’t even attached to us. They were there just in case something happened and we needed to be towed out of danger – either of grounding or hitting another ship. This happened with the ships directly in front of us and behind us as well, and I assume it happens with every single ship that comes into the Canal.

The locks are doubled – two locks side by side, but ships don’t enter them together. They’re always staggered so that the lock directly beside a ship is empty. Collisions would be disastrous, and the Canal authority does everything it can to ensure that the ships are never close enough to each other to be in danger. What happens is that in the morning, both sides of the Canal begin transiting ships, using both sides of the lock system, so you have traffic heading in both directions at the same time. But they never meet at the locks. Or in the cuts. It’s exquisetly timed so that there’s only one place ships pass each other going in opposite directions.P1020004

The above was taken at the Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean side of Gatun Lake. We’ve just entered the third lock and the gates are closing to lower us the last step to sea level. The blue ship, on the right in the background, is just moving into the second lock, and the red ship, in the far background is beginning its entry into the lock system.

P1020003Here’s a close up of the same situation – blue ship entering second of three locks, red ship just beginning its entry into the first lock, and we’re just exiting the last lock.

So that means that ships never pass each other going in different directions except in one place. We pass each other in Gatun Lake and at no other time. In the narrow Canal cuts and at the locks, it’s one way only.

If you’ve ever wondered why the cruise ships have that ugly, awkward boxy look to them, then wonder no more. The shape is called a Panaflex, and it’s made so that the ship just fits into a Panama canal lock.

P1010808This is looking straight down. The little silver thinggee is a railroad car that will guide (not pull) the ship through the locks. That gap where you see the head of the guy in the blue shirt? That’s all the space there is between the ship and the lock wall.

P1010807You see that silver thinggee down on the right with the little yellow stick-outs? (Don’t you love my total grasp of technical terms? (And yes, I’m rolling my eyes at me too.) That’s oldish age for you.) That’s a railroad car, I think they called it a mule. Look back behind that mule car. There’s a bit of a gap. That gap is the space between the hull of the ship and the cement wall of the lock. It’s INCHES wide.  There was about three feet between us and the lock gates. This baby is made to just perfectly fit into the lock, without any room to spare. (The left hand side of the photo is a reflection from the glass wall of our deck.) This was taken at the first Miraflora lock, on the Panama City side of the Canal.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish the journey and the day after that we’ll talk about the amazingly wonderful dinner we had that I was supposed to take copious notes on because it was an epic wine/food pairing, but I kinda sorta got sidetracked. Tune in to hear about dredging cuts, Gatun Lake, crocodiles and the Cellar Master’s dinner.

And apologies for posting this so late in the day – events around home intervened. See you tomorrow!