Saturday, May 23, 2020

Serenade to the Stars

The earth lets loose a forlorn flood of tears,
Human lives founder on elemental fears.
The world we knew not solid as it seems,
Eyes open now from puffy clouds of dreams.
They look up to the stark night sky ablaze
To marvel at that arcing trail, the Milky Way;
Mercury glows dimly beside bold Mars
As the pond's spring peepers serenade the stars.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Cocooning At Home - All Together Now!

Here we are, on this blustery grey day of pelting rain, cocooned at home. It is a great day to be so cocooned; we have power and so heat and light, we have food supplies, we have our cosy home, communication with the outside world, and our magnificent view out over the cove to the open Atlantic beyond is still there, albeit a litlle blurry through the rain-streaked windows. In truth, it is always a great day to be cocooned at home. With the weathers forever in flux, the scene is constantly changing. Tomorrow will be such a revelation when the sun comes out again and the light shimmers on the water and the snow dazzles with effusive brilliance. We will step outside and inhale the fresh salty, seaweedy tang on the breeze.

In truth, we have been cocooning for decades, sheltering from the ill winds that blow in the turmoil of gathering storms. For a decade, we escaped the city by cocooning in rented homes on the Niagara Escarpment; for two decades, we escaped the encroaching populace of the Golden Horseshoe by cocooning in our first purchased home - a farm on 55 acres, no less, tucked away in the Northumberland Hills; and then we escaped encroaching industrial agriculture by selling the farm and buying a smaller home on the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Further east we cannot go without falling into the sea, and so here it is that we will cocoon for the coming decades, without losing our social spirit. One year is almost in the books already. We had not envisaged missing the community of friends and fellowship in the hills as we do, but we will make amends by visiting when circumstances are more conducive. 

We are still getting to know community around here and remind ourselves that it took many years to establish strong social bonds in Ontario. Cape Breton Island is of a size that encourages cultural and social interaction as well as appreciation of beauty in nature and the great outdoors. A nascent local community built around food and farming is a very timely development in this time of cocooning. With so many people at home, it is vital that farmers and producers step up to service their local community by providing fresh, wholesome food close to cocoons. Wild animals live within a territory or environmental niche. Butterflies forage for food and produce their honey within a small localized area. We should adapt their ways!

The present cocooning of an entire populace in each community, region, in most countries is an unprecedented, extraordinary effort to protect health by containing the spread of contagion. Perversely - from our cocoons - it draws us together in common cause. By and large, we get it, grasping that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. For once in our lives, we all get to pull together in mutual aid, by helping those less able to look after themselves. Forget the survival of the fittest of neo-Darwinism; Darwin knew very well that our survival is more a question of adaptation than of competition. There will be casualties and fallout. Many among us will be ill, many around the world will die, and many things we took for granted will be wiped off the menu, almost overnight, never to return. Not to be under-estimated, this will be an extended, vital change in our lives that will test our resolve, one that, nonetheless, should be embraced with compassion, civility... and cocooning. All together now.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The White House, Margaree

If pictures could tell stories...

then I would love to hear the history of this white farmhouse, located right off the Cabot Trail in the lower Margaree Valley, just south of Fordview. The views across the broad river valley are sumptuous, especially with a full colour array of fall foliage. The sculptured old apple tree laden with plump red fruit raises her outstretched arms skyward as if in proclamation, perhaps in anguish. 

The river glides on by as it has always done in its patient path to the embracing sea. One would never guess from the far vantage point over the other side of the valley toward the house that it now stands abandoned, in disrepair, moulding, sagging, fraying, creaking. The mountainsides it is sheltered by stand sturdy, strong, ablaze with autumnal vigour.

What merriment rang out in the dining room in Thanksgivings and Christmases past? What joy was beheld by the pastoral prospects? What spirited ghosts inhabit the wood-panneled bedrooms? What foods did they grow and what animals roamed the barnyard?

The bumpy backroads of Margaree (and the length and breadth of Cape Breton Island beyond) lead past many such homesteads entangled in vegetation and throttled by trees, soon to be swallowed up entirely, reverted to wild land, almost without trace of the stories they could tell.

Friday, March 8, 2019

After The Volcano

At the end of our twelve-week stay in Guatemala this winter, we stayed for three days at the lovely Hotel Bambú, nestled in splendid owner-designed gardens on the bay on the edge of Santiago Atitlan. The hotel was founded in the early 1990s by José Ramón de Castro, who originates from Vigo, in Galicia, Spain. As we were departing, two close friends of José were saying their goodbyes after a weekend visit. We were awaiting our tuk-tuk taxi, headed for the lancha to take us across Lake Atitlan to Panajachel, thence by minibus to Antigua. Jose's friends invited us to travel direct to Antigua with them in their Jeep. Perfect - yes please!

Our route took us for our first time on the southern "coastal" road via San Lucas Toliman south along  a well-paved stretch downhill through coffee plantations, majestic trees, and open green grasslands before turning east to Escuintla on a terribly bumpy and potholed divided road reminiscent of Cuba with its vast tracts of sugar cane and associated processing plants. The bustling town of Escuintla reveals more modern dress among the locals than the traditional Mayan costumes we are used to seeing on Lake Atitlan and in Antigua. Having negotiated our way through the busy streets entirely lacking signage, we headed north and up past towering volcanoes on the last stretch, the highway to Antigua. 

With little warning, the otherwise smooth road kinked and became a twisted surface of dusty ash and gravel, a grey moonscape. We were crossing the wide river valley where rainy season torrents bring down heavy precipitation. This landscape has, however, been transformed by the cataclysmic eruption of Volcan Fuego in a massive surging pyroclastic flow over 20 kilometres in length on the morning of June 3 last year. Pyroclastic flows are hot, fast-moving avalanches of ash and rock debris of all sizes, that wipe out everything in their path. The height of the ash plume first rose to an unusual 10+ kilometres, then decreased to 5 - 6 kilometres for most of the eruptive phase. There was no warning of the ferocity and speed of this monumental event. According to our hosts, La Reunion golf course ordered evacuation by 11am. Two towns, El Rodeo with a population of 14,000, and San Miguel Los Lotes 2 kilometres north, did not receive official evacuation orders until 3pm, by which time the damage was already done, the warning too late. Both towns were buried in deep, hot ash. Though official estimates put the death toll at around 300, the fast burial of these towns make it certain that many thousands perished, and salvage efforts continued for many weeks, with survivors desperately seeking their missing loved ones. Witnessing this scene of devastation, with rooftops peeking out above the carpet of grey, with rocks and boulders strewn around, was sobering indeed. Above the valley floor, the land remained completely untouched by this savage onslaught. 

It was good to get back to the civility and charm of Antigua so fast, in such comfort, delivered right to our hotel, having seen a whole new part of Guatemala, and having avoided the schlepping of heavy baggage from taxi to boat to taxi to minibus.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cerro de Oro

Chico invited me to climb Cerro de Oro with him, Monday, departing at 5 am, before sun-up, the air fresh and cool.... He duly picked me up, a little late, but ready to head off across the lower slopes and up the mountain, Cerro de Oro, a giant lava dome that towers 330 metres above Lake Atitlan. It was dark when we left with daylight peeking over the crater rim to the east. At first by torchlight, we meandered along paths, mostly ancient, through red-beaned coffee groves and dry-stalked corn fields. The coffee groves are shaded by huge, ancient avocado and jocote trees. Chico has his two dogs and a machete. Farmers we pass have just machetes and greet Chico in Kaqchikel, *xseqër k'a!*,then me in Spanish. *"Buenos dias!"* As the sun appears over the horizon behind us, we see Cerro de Oro bathed in orange dawn light up ahead. The mountain is steeped in Mayan mythology; legend involves an elephant, a serpent, and a giant. One legend continues that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to Lake Atitlán where he saw Cerro de Oro: the “hill of gold” became the model for “the boa constrictor digesting an elephant” on the first page of The Little Prince. He said when the Spanish first came to Lake Atitlán, they looked for gold hidden by the Maya in the caves and tunnels under the hill where they became lost and never returned. Other legends say the tunnels run all the way to Tolimán volcano, and that the Tz’utujil people hid from the Spaniards in the tunnels. The colossal steeped mound has the look of a crouching beast with a bristling head, lit up now in its fiery morning glow.

And a beast she was to climb. Not that high, but steep, on very dusty narrow trails, with sheer drop-offs down arid, dry-season-denuded slopes. At a cluster of massive boulders which serve as a ceremonial altar, the slope eases, winding like the snake around a wooded glade to the rocky, treed summit. The views are magnificent over Lake Atitlan, from Santiago, to San Pedro, to Panajachel, all the way round to San Antonio. The air is hazy; the sun glistens over the little peninsula of Pachitulul, where we have come from, way down below. The morning sounds of traffic and activity from the strung-out village of Cerro de Oro drift up on the pleasant breeze. At 8 am, the sun is already hot and our time of rest, re-hydration and contemplation is most welcome. Chico tries to assure me that this climb is good for the heart, legs, and soul. To him, the elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor seems sacred and hallowed. 

His world stretches before us - Lake Atitlan in all her glory. He says that when he was a youngster, the lake lapped at the feet of the now giant amate tree at Casa Pitaya where we regularly sit on a hillock with the lake some thirty feet below! The fields he farms today were, back then, under water and this whole shoreline is reclaimed. He says the lake level goes up and down in 45-year cycles, suggesting that another rise is due. As we gaze from this eagle's nest some 1100 feet above the lake, anywhere near a thirty foot rise over the breadth of this vast expanse of water seems unthinkable, but the twenty five feet drop in recent years is indicative of the possibility. It would certainly upset more than a few foreigners who have built homes and businesses perched close to the water's edge. The locals know better, of course.

Back home, a refreshing swim in the tranquil waters of the bay washes away the dust of the trail. Later on, Chico cut a fabulous bunch of a dozen ripe bananas and delivered them. A fruit salad of fresh-picked bananas and lemons, with sweet pineapples and mangoes from the market drizzled with local mountain honey was so juicily delicious.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

San Lucas Toliman, revisited

Market days are Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. On these days, several streets are closed to traffic and thronging with vendors, their produce, and customers. The vibrant colours of Kaqchikel Mayan women in their *trajes* and the fruit and vegetables on offer, comined with the hubbub of banter create a boisterous and lively atmosphere. A large proportion of this food is locally-grown on small plots of land and brought fresh to market. We have never experienced anywhere else the depth of intense flavour of the beets and carrots, mangoes and melons of the markets around Lake Atitlan.

On non-market days, these same streets look desolate and unkempt. Any number of *tiendas* sell mostly packaged junk food in a sea of plastic. Any number of *farmacias* sell pharmaceutical drugs, largely to medicate and treat against this junk diet. Sugary carbonated drinks and salty snacks made using industrial-strength glyphosated GMO corn and soy doused in unhealthy trans-fats help to fuel malnutrition, obesity, and diabetes rates.

The view from Hotel Toliman, towards San Antonio Palopo

Apart from a handful of hotels, including the lovely Hotel Toliman, this town of 17,000 inhabitants, 90 - 95% of them Mayan, barely caters to tourists and travellers at all. One cafe, Cafe Jade, offers free wifi and freshly-ground coffees. The restaurants and fast-food eateries in town service mainly locals. Hotel Toliman sits on a knoll overlooking a swimming pool, beautiful gardens, the bay and the open waters of Lake Atitlan beyond. The far view takes in San Antonio Palopo on the shore and Agua Escondida further along, up on the crater rim. The accommodations look delightful and the cuisine is sumptuous, making full use of fresh ingredients from their one-acre organic garden, fresh fish, and 100% grass-fed beef. What could eclipse this?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Valley of San Marcos

The walk up and around the valley behind San Marcos is a delight. We love to saunter, thereby taking in the sights, sounds, smells, moving slowly, inhaling deeply. As John Muir so smartly noted: "Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them."

We began our saunter at our home base of Pasajcap where we enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Atitlán and the sweeping contours of the three fully-forested volcanoes that frame our horizon. The walk into the village of San Marcos is along a dusty unpaved road where we encounter locals that greet us warmly (including this father, son, and dog returning from firewood harvesting). 

We also pass fellow-travellers and tuk-tuks that operate as the local taxi service. We have established that even small paths and alleys lead somewhere, so we just follow our nose, uphill out of town. The way zig-zags past simple dwellings inhabited by local Mayans, past walled and fenced properties with beatiful lush gardens mostly owned by foreigners, aka gringos. Some properties are rented out, as lodges, hostels, rooms, yoga and meditation retreats. The Yoga Forest "is a sacred sanctuary with ancient Mayan altars and natural springs that have been protected as a Natural Reserve in order to honor the land and the heritage of its people" according to its website. It has towering trees and sits nestled at the base of a gigantic sacred rockface. "The Yoga Forest shares conscious living as a spiritual practice, offering a unique retreat space for self connection, connection to the Earth, and personal growth. We live, work & play harmoniously in nature, creating inclusive abundance and a safe space for personal transformation and authentic self expression. Through intercultural relationships of respect, we weave together local and global visions that inspire positive social and ecological impacts in the world."

Up the trail beyond the Yoga Forest, the habitation thins to a few wooden structures perched high, soaking up the view. There are banana, orange, avocado trees shading the coffee trees with their ripening red beans. This trail, winding through solid boulder steps, feels like it has been here forever, helping local Mayans to ferry wood, fruit and coffee down the mountainside for hundreds of years. The valley is deep and broad and leads all the way up past its rim to the village of Santa Lucia Utatlán, some three hours distant, up on the plateau. As we paused to drink in the view to the lake, up came three petite Mayan women with big machetes and gauze bags; they were off up-valley to harvest firewood, which they will bring down to the villages strapped to their backs. They were chatty, cheerful, and giggly, radiant in their colourful local dress.

After an hour or so of climbing, we took a trail that led across the river (dry at this time but a raging torrent in wet season). It led us down the other side and offered up spectacular views out up the mountain, past the rockface, and down to the villages of San Marcos, San Pedro, and San Juan, the lake and the perfect green cone of Volcan San Pedro. Here, the land is like a jungle garden, with flowering trees spreading their ample limbs laterally. A local woman with her toddler son warns us to be careful. (Yes, we did encounter three women with machetes....) We returned via the tidy upper part of San Marcos down steep paved streets to the centre.

It was time to finally check out the eclectic Japanese restaurant Allala, tucked away down an alleyway that leads to the garishly astro-turfed soccer pitch. Hungry for a late lunch after our sauntered stroll, we tucked into miso soup, tempura vegetables, and arroz con pollo, or chicken rice. A quick shop for supplies, then back to Pasajcap by tuk-tuk too weary (or blissed-out) for Happy Hour with our fellow travellers. 

We did, however, get to met white-haired, gnome-like Yves from Quebec. He has been living here for a year in his schoolbus/van, jacked up on boulders to level it on the sloping hillside. He was first on the lake thirty years ago when there was just one motorboat daily between Panajachel and San Pedro. Now they come by every fifteen minutes or so, so there must be more than fifty a day in each direction. Yves spends half his Canada Pension helping local families here. As he says: "It's no good to me once I'm gone."