Farewell, Ahipara

We celebrated Thanksgiving a week early and roasted a 12-pound turkey for three people just to have lots and lots of stuffing. My stuffing recipe is an age-old one from my mother, something she improvised with butter and toasted bread. Over the years, I  tweaked it, adding onion and mushroom.  A basic recipe that still causes fights for the leftovers.

I think of my parents often at Thanksgiving, a holiday we came to share out of necessity. They downsized in the early 90s to a condo, and my house was large and within driving distance. The dinner grew each year and was usually more than 20 people. Initially, my mom struggled with no longer hosting the family. I would feign a lack of memory about “stuffing protocol” and the special Jello preparation, and she enjoyed showing me how to do it once again. Over time, we graduated to her standing by my side, giving me her approval. In the last few years, I found her fast asleep in the comfy chair when it was time to stuff the bird.

This year, Carrie and I stuffed the bird together, checking in with each other as to how we each “attacked” the finer points of stuffing, and the torch was passed. 

What a strange Thanksgiving. I stared at the beach and the waves, knowing full well we were leaving this lovely beach home in another two days. Usually, November is cold and rainy with a promise of snow. Instead, we ate our meal in the sunshine out on a deck, listening to the ocean and watching the bush pheasants glide across the high seagrass.

Walking the beach for the final time, I met a 72-year-old grandmother, out with her grandchildren. The strong wind had a chill to it, but that didn’t stop the kids from swimming naked. She chatted with me for a while, as Kiwis are so willing to do. She had only just returned from a few months in Scotland, biking the countryside and camping by herself. No mention of her husband, so I’m assuming she is now on her own. 

Her biking recommendation: the route from Paris to Prague, having biked the course herself, alone. “But only do 50 klicks a day,” she suggested. “No need to kill yourself.” When I asked about equipment, she packs her bike and ships it to her destination. She was adamant about avoiding a rental bike seat. She saves money because she camps and stays at hostels. We talked for some time about the different countries she had biked, and her next destination- Norway! As her grandchildren raced back to her house, she shouted website suggestions to me over her shoulder. I was sorry to be just meeting her as we were leaving.

The hospital staff gave John a beautiful send-off, and we spent our last week saying goodbye to the friends we made. Carrie helped us pack up the house, and I cried all the way down Ahipara Road as we left. 

Hiding in Plain Sight

Our time in New Zealand is winding to a close, and each day speeds by faster. We will be back in Detroit in early December, just in time to leave the beginning of summer in Ahipara and face the unseasonable cold predicted for the Midwest. My daily walk on the beach suddenly is more precious to me.

I haven’t collected my usual assortment of shells this year. Still, I have managed to get my feet wet almost every day, regardless of the weather. I am now accustomed to wading through the River of Souls to access the beach. I hardly notice the mucky sand at the shoreline or the rare creature that brushes up against me in the murky water. Once on the beach, I can walk forever; I listen to my podcasts, watch the birds dance, feel the power of the waves, and hunt for clams.

A bed of tuatua

Last year, the tuatua were plentiful, and I was able to film them coming out of their hiding places in the sand. Sadly, this year, I have seen very few, probably due to weather cycles and tides and water temperatures. Carrie and I spotted a few on the beach up north by Cape Reinga, and I was reminded of the significant struggle of this tiny creature to survive.

The tuatua and the pipi are two edible saltwater clams found in New Zealand, and the two names are often used interchangeably, though that’s technically incorrect. They are distinguished by different shells, and, to some extent, where you can find them. Tuatuas are usually harvested on the beach, while a pipi clam grows in a harbor or estuary. The “meat” of the clams consists of the entire muscle inside the shell. When the tide goes out, the tuatuas begin to wiggle their way to the surface of the sand, using that muscle. The birds swoop down and nab them before the tide comes back in. If the tuatua makes it out to sea, it becomes part of the food chain for fish, starfish, and larger mammals.

Waiting for tuatua

For centuries, the tuatua/pipi were a food staple for coastal villages. One boy told me he likes to eat them raw, but local friends say they usually make fritters with the actual meat of the clam. If you soak them in seawater for 24 hours, apparently, the clam spits out most of the sand grit, making the eating part more enjoyable.

Historically, Maori harvested clams using flax baskets. The open weave design of the flax allowed smaller pipi to fall back into the clam bed as the basket was swirled through the water. Locals today do the “pipi shuffle,” or the “Tuatua twist,” twisting side to side in ankle-deep water until they uncover a bed of clams. The diggers then scoop up clams, sorting them by size. At one time, there was never-ending food supply. Today, harvesting is regulated, and some areas are restricted to allow regeneration. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t seen any diggers this year on 90-mile.

The tuatua seems like that “against all the odds” story. Clams spawn at sea, burrow into beach sand, develop, and eventually emerge from their hiding place, only to face certain death. If diggers don’t find them, the birds do. The likelihood of the clam making its way out to sea is low, and then it faces starfish and other hungry predators up the food chain.

Like the tuatua, I feel I face impossible odds regarding my writing. I have been “hiding” out, growing, and developing a writing muscle, hoping to emerge and get an agent, and then, find a publisher. The picture book market is considered the tightest market in publishing. What appears to be so easy and simplistic is actually rather strenuous. Most children’s authors take over 5 years to even make it to the first step of getting an agent, and then the real challenge begins. To call the process daunting would be an understatement.

All writer’s brains struggle with self-doubt. Each new challenge, transition, or rejection brings in that questioning voice. Maybe this effort is not worth it, or perhaps I shouldn’t waste my time. Life would be more comfortable not to engage almost inevitable failure. Just stay hidden! The inner voice always encourages that self-protection.

But nature provides tremendous inspiration to charge ahead and not give up the fight. For most species, survival involves a disproportionate amount of failure and loss and change. Fortunately, clams are oblivious to the downside, probably right up to the minute they are eaten. They just do their thing and let nature take care of fate.

After walking on the beach and thinking about the deeper meaning of clams, I found this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that helped me get through some disappointments this week.

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety . . . . Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day.”

Picture This

The first time I flew in a prop plane, John and I were on our honeymoon. We caught a jumper flight from San Juan to St. Croix, and I was terrified. In general, flying on any plane was anxiety-ridden for me. Take-offs and landings were white knuckle moments, and flying over the ocean conjured up images of crashing into shark-infested water. I was a nervous wreck and not much fun.

Part of my fear was fueled by motion sickness. I get sick in the back of a car, on most boats, and always on planes, especially when I try to read or watch a movie. It starts with a headache, then dizziness, and finally, nausea. Often, I could not discern if I felt sick because I was anxious or anxious because I felt like throwing up. But, I did want to travel and, that desire forced a concerted effort to overcome not just the sickness part, but the fear.

For years, I took medication, but even half a pill gave me mind fog and tiredness that was overwhelming and ruined the day. Finally, I discovered these wrist bands based on acupuncture called Sea Bands and an aromatherapy roll-on that make travel much more pleasant, even in a smaller plane.

As for the fear part, it weirdly went away when I traveled with my kids. They would be enamored of the clouds, and I remembered feeling the same way the first time I flew with my grandfather at the age of ten. I love watching cloud formations, and flying just allows me to view them from a different perspective. When I realized the fear was probably rooted in some need to control, and that I had not been afraid as a child, the anxiety just disappeared. I opened up the closet labeled “Danger: LION!” only to find a cute kitten.

Some of the pictures that follow are of the spectacular sunsets, taken on one of our trips to Auckland. The pilots on Barrier Air remember us, the views are amazing, and I enjoy picking out familiar landmarks. The remaining photos were taken from our deck.

Flying to Auckland
and watching the clouds

Sunsets in Ahipara
look different every night.
The clouds dwarf even the mountain by our town.
Every night is a new painting
and a tribute to miracles.

Death by Vacation, Part 2

Continued: Our week of adventure with Carrie

Tongariro National Park is northeast of Taumaranui. Located a few hours from Auckland, the park is a popular destination, featuring the 19-kilometer Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a World Heritage site. That track has been on my bucket list for a while, but in October, it is still partially snow-covered and requires winter hiking gear.

We decided on a shorter day hike to Taranaki Falls, which turned out to be just lovely.

Over the next two days, we worked our way north to Turangi, the fly-fishing capital of the world, and watched anglers land trout. After a two-hour bike ride, we soaked in mineral baths, and dined at a restaurant in Taupo that we stumbled into by accident. But after a day of relaxing, watching movies, and wandering on a local path, we decided it was time for some excitement.

We headed south to the Timber Trail, an 84-kilometer bike trail through the Pureora Forest. Once a logging road, the path is part of the Nga Haerenga (The New Zealand Cycle Trail), a network of 22 Great Rides. The Timber Trail lays claim to 35 bridges, 8 of which are large suspension bridges.

Crossing waterfalls, whitewater, and deep gorges, the bridges can be deceiving. From a distance, the structures look impressive and sturdy, but, as you cross, the walkway sways with your every move. Usually, no more than 5-10 people are allowed on the bridge at any one time, although that doesn’t change the unnerving sense that the bridge could fall at any minute. The views, however, are well worth the anxiety.

The trail officially begins in Pureora with a steep 10-kilometer incline. Rated as a grade three (intermediate), the first 40 kilometers are not recommended for beginners or anyone with the last name of Rudzinski. It sounded grueling. The guide books suggested an alternative start at the midpoint of the trail. This second half of the trail is graded level 2 (easy) and is considered suitable for families with children.

Now here’s the thing with Kiwis. They always sound calm and chronically understate whatever they are describing. If you don’t pay attention, you will be lured into a life-threatening situation. A bit of a challenge is code for this will be the toughest thing you ever do. A few good hills with some muddy spots implies the trail is pitched at such a steep angle controlling your speed is impossible, and at the bottom, you will hit 6-inch-deep mud. A few rough patches indicates entire sections are actually deep gullies with sudden drop-offs, so you will go airborne as you barrel down the hill. And, you might have to climb over fallen trees with your bike.

My husband was very excited at this new prospect of near death.

We met Paul from the bike rental at the trail end outside Ongarue. Once a robust logging town, Ongarue is now a small hamlet with some abandoned buildings and a few services for the trail. Paul fitted us with fat tire bikes, provided helmets and padded seats, and then drove us 45 minutes to the campsite/mid-point. Paul let us know that we would have a “wee bit of a climb” for the first few kilometers and then “an easy go of it” for the rest of the trail. Thanks, Paul.

We practiced on the bikes for a few minutes. I fell off mine before I even got on the trail. It took half the ride for me to accept these fat tires were not like my tires on my bike back home. If I had been riding my own bike, I never would have made it. Despite barreling down a hill terrified and moving faster than I ever wanted to be going, then hitting huge mud sections, the rental bike handled most of it.

When we were halfway through the trail and approaching a bridge, I slowed to navigate the entrance. Suddenly, the bike paused, and before I could get my feet on the ground, I was going over. I landed on a sharp rock on my left side, and the resulting bruise spanned my entire left buttock.

I could tell my husband and daughter were upset; I was hurt, and honestly, it was excruciating. But we were a good two hours into cycling and had no cell reception. I either had to get on the bike and ride or walk my way back.I was angry at myself for not being more aggressive with my speed and trusting the bike.

At that moment, I decided to stop being so cautious. Despite taking care, I had already managed to fall off the bike twice. I had to trust the bike’s ability to handle the trail, and I had to trust my own ability to navigate the path. It was the only way back to the car.

A few hills later, I finally felt that moment of “flow” – I got lost in the challenge of maintaining my speed down a significant slope. The bike skidded, but I recovered. The drop off was more extreme than I had expected, but I pedaled harder. Existing in just that moment, dodging obstacles with my bike was exhilarating and liberating.

On our drive back to the hotel, I thought back to my childhood when I didn’t think about risk; how deep the water might be, or how far the jump really was, or if I could break my neck having the fun I was having. I just did it.

The best part of the day was the opportunity to recapture that feeling of letting go.

Biking in Northland

90 Mile Beach stretches from Ahipara, where we are living, up to Cape Reinga, the northern most point of New Zealand. The beach is one continuous, hard-packed sand trail, used by horses, ATVs, and 4-wheel drive vehicles. We bought bikes last year to ride it, and retrieved them out of storage when we returned. We also found some great bike trails near us, and our favorite has been the Twin Coast Cycle Trail (Pou Herenga Tai).

Twin Coast stretches for 84 km between Hokianga Harbor on the west side of the Northland peninsula across to the Bay of Islands on the east coast. The trail winds through gorgeous farmland and pastures, with wild turkeys and numerous cows as spectators. Whenever we passed a herd, each cow stopped eating and stared, watching us intently until we disappeared. We did trail segments last year, primarily from the town of Okaihau to Kaikohe. Okaihau sits at a higher elevation and the trail to Kaikohe is ALL downhill. This means the trip back to the car is ALL uphill. So, we decided to see what the trail was like in the other direction. Although we had not seen many people headed west, we were curious.

Neither one of us bothered to look at an elevation map and a half hour into the trail towards Horeke, the next town, we found ourselves on the steepest hill we ever biked. Nonetheless, the day was awesome. The air was about 55 degrees and the sun was out for most of the ride. The trail had great vistas along Stone Creek and beautiful wooded areas. We never made it to Horeke because at one vantage point we could see the trail continue downwards. Facing that steep climb going back, we decided we had enough exercise for the day. The cows enjoyed watching us haul our bikes on the return trip.

our friends

The last mile of the ride, as we were returning to Okaihau, a light rain started and we raced each other back to the car. Starving after all the exercise, we loaded up and planned an early dinner in Keri Keri. As I backed up the car, we both felt it- the car had a jerky feel to it and a strange noise. Our front tire was flat. After a lame attempt to pump the tire, and some discussion, John sent me to the local hardware store a block away for a can of Fix-A Flat.

Russell, the store owner, had no such thing in stock. The hardware store was a jumble of shelves, with haphazard engine parts and second hand tools, more like someone’s messy garage. Russell offered to lock the store and come help my non-mechanical husband. He helped John change the tire out and put on the spare, which turned out to be a full size tire. As luck would have it, Russell had some medical concerns, so it was an in-kind moment.

At the tire store in Keri Keri, we discovered the tire had been slashed. The puncture was not obvious at first to even the tire guy. I remembered some local kids hanging around near the carpark- in a small town like Okaihau, teenagers are probably hard pressed to find something to do. That usually means trouble for some unsuspecting person. Because the hospital owns the vehicle, we needed approval to purchase a new tire. In the end, the tire was replaced, we had a spare for the ride home in backcountry, and we survived our first car vandalism in New Zealand.

Yesterday, we decided the car had been through enough excitement for the week, and we just rode our bikes on the beach.

The two horses are Ahi and Dixie, gentle sisters, and they were very curious about our bikes.

Coming Home

This past weekend we traveled to Auckland and hiked Rangitoto Island, a dormant shield volcano in the Hauraki Gulf. The name is Maori for “Bloody Sky,” and is a reference to a historic battle that took place on the island. The youngest of the volcanoes in the Auckland area, Rangitoto erupted a mere 600 years ago. The nature reserve is only accessible by passenger ferry, which leaves the Auckland pier every few hours. On a Saturday, the island is busy, but the views from the summit are worth battling the crowds. The hike climbs through old lava fields, past lava tube caves, to a spectacular lookout.

On Sunday we spent the afternoon at the Auckland Zoo. Unlike Brookfield in Chicago or the San Diego Zoo, Auckland’s Zoo is an easy afternoon walk. Exhibits lead into each other but don’t feel crammed together or too far apart. The highlight of the day was spotting a kiwi bird, albeit in captivity. Although I always enjoy walking around any zoo, the irony is never lost on me. I go to the zoo to escape for a while, only to watch caged animals.

Still, the beautiful weather and conversation made for an almost perfect afternoon. We overate great food, and, as always, the weekend went by too fast. And saying goodbye to Carrie at an airport just never gets easier.

The Kaitaia Airport has one landing strip and one wind flag, and only allows prop planes to land. Last year Air New Zealand was still flying into Kaitaia, but then the airline phased out the smaller prop planes in their fleet. Now, just Barrier Air does the route. Barrier Air does not have any self-serve kiosks at the Auckland airport- you ring a bell at a desk, and someone eventually shows up. The same person who prints your boarding pass collects it at the gate and also loads the luggage (if there is any). On domestic flights in New Zealand, no real security screening is implemented. Someone is available at the main gate entrance with a metal detector wand if needed, but, mainly you show your boarding pass, and walk down a gangway to your gate, and then out onto the tarmac. It’s the way travel used to be and is more civilized than TSA.

Our plane was full, meaning there were 8 passengers on it. Vince, our pilot, gave us the two-minute set of safety instructions and advised he would turn on the heater if it got too cold. I hoped for no turbulence, as my head actually touched the ceiling when I sat straight up.

The flight was on time and smooth, and we experienced a fantastic sunset over the Tasman Sea, something I never tire of watching.

When we landed, Christine, the only shuttle driver in Kaitaia, was waiting in the terminal (Quonset hut). She greeted us with a quick joke and then informed us her rates went up to $5 since last year. Christine is a bit of a fixture in town, with her gumboots, a crocheted cap, a dirty overcoat, and self-rolled cigarettes. Every time I see her, she is wearing the same clothes. Christine is probably my age but looks old enough to be my mother. She talks fast with a strong Kiwi accent, so I can’t understand half of what she says. However, from what I gather, Christine is a part-time police informant. Not much happens in Kaitaia, but if it does, she knows about it. And then the local police know. (Like the “p”(meth) lab that was attracting rats near her house.) She’s a good source of local gossip.

On the slow ride back to the hospital to pick up our car, we passed just two vehicles on the road. Christine updated us on town happenings, which was nothing. At 7:30 on a Sunday night, most of downtown Kaitaia was closed and deserted, except for the local McDonald’s- a stark contrast to our time in Auckland.

Oddly, I felt happy to be home. 

Let the rain come down

Spring storms blow in daily off the sea and soak the mounds of beach grass, our yard, and the garden below. I would be annoyed if I was in Ahipara to surf for just a few days, but I have time and the rain won’t last forever. Plus, it’s making everything incredibly green. The rainy days also create a great motivation to read and write like a fiend, do story research, and to connect with critique partners.

When the rain stopped for a brief window of time in the late afternoon, I took a walk on the beach, which means I walk through the garden, over a footbridge, through grassy mounds, and then wade across the River of Souls to get to sand. Normally the river at its deepest point is knee-deep, but, after raining all day, the river easily reached my upper thigh and moves swiftly. I hesitated for a minute, initially thinking about the headline “Stupid American Woman Attempts Crossing”, but decided, after a day inside, I need the wind in my face and the sand between my toes.

I usually walk south on the shore towards Shipwreck Bay, and count no more than three people. Today, I could have walked forever, but storm clouds were forming over the sea, with the sun peaking out between the gray as it descended in the sky. Best to turn back and cross the water before dusk. Before returning to the house, I discovered a giant squash plant growing in the garden. I don’t know what it will produce- looks similar to zucchini- but it has numerous orange blooms on it and loves the moisture. When the weather warms, I am hoping for lots of squash for dinner.

Once the sun set, the black over the ocean deepened, almost like an impenetrable wall that starts at the shore. The heavy rain clouds blocked any light from the sky, with a lone light in a house down the beach creating a distant yellow glow . I turned off all the lights in the house, pulled back the drapes, and stood at the window, watching, listening to the torrential downpour. The din on the roof was deafening, making it difficult to concentrate. The wind gusts created a howling around the house that sounded half- human. I loved it.

Back home rain interrupts plans, creates a bad mood, and makes everyone complain. In New Zealand, the fact is it will probably rain today, and life goes on. Like so many other things, rain is only a deterrent if I let it be.

We’re back!

When we left New Zealand for home last November, the hospital suggested returning this year in August, maybe for a longer stint. In February, John was officially asked to replace one of the permanent doctors going on sabbatical. Although John and the hospital were in agreement that he was indeed returning, for the next 4 months, the hospital struggled with the approval process, and finally turned the mess(application) over to a placement agency. We thought a repeat work visa would be easier, and in some ways, the paperwork part of it was smoother. By August 1st, however, we were both wondering if this year’s application would go up in smoke. But, on August 12th, the New Zealand Medical Council confirmed his appointment.

After a few crazy days packing and preparing to step out of our lives back home, we left for New Zealand on August 21st. In the week before we left, our daughter’s dog got skunked, John lost his sunglasses, I thought I broke my phone, and the township failed to pick up the garbage. Suddenly, everything moved at hyper speed and seemed out of control. And then suddenly we were on a plane.

Now we are here. The intense anxiety and stress that is singularly American disappeared as we crossed the international dateline. Our second day in New Zealand, we flew to Christchurch to see Carrie perform at Tedx- a magical day. She delivered a flawless performance in front of a huge crowd, and I thought about the shy three-year-old who would hide behind me and refuse to talk to aunts and uncles. I was blown away with emotion.

The next day we began the drive north, first to Whangarei (Fang a ray), then to Keri Keri and on to Kaitaia. Highway 1 winds from Keri Keri to Kaitaia, over a mountain, through the Mangamuka Gorge- the switchbacks are tough, but the views spectacular. The further north we drove, the more zen I felt. The landscape has not changed much in 9 months, and either has Kaitaia- the Pak-n-Save is still the town meeting place; Ahmed, the manager at the Copper Chimney Indian Restaurant, recognized me (it’s one of two decent restaurants in town); and the hospital had familiar faces and everyone was happy to see John.

For the next few months, we get to enjoy another spring, and Carrie helped us plant some vegetables in the small garden of our house. The lettuce should grow well. We are in a different place than last year- the beach is a longer walk, but the mattresses are better. The weather is in the 50s-60s, but colder at night.

Today, the beach is mostly deserted, with the occasional surfer or dog walker, but Ahipara hasn’t lost its dream-like quality. Looking out at the waves and the sand, seeing horses walking the beach, is surreal, especially when the pounding surf creates a fog-like mist down the coastline. Yesterday morning we discovered a dead stingray, about 4-5 feet long, and this morning I watched two seals discuss the condition of the water before charging into the surf. I know the sun sets in other places, but somehow the color show over the Tasman Sea still mesmerizes me. In those moments, I am a lifetime away from Detroit and still can’t believe I’m back.

Mama La

The large storage container, converted into a housing unit, sits on cement blocks 10 feet from the main road winding through Grand Case. This is the French side of the island. Heavy rain the night before has left deep puddles in the dirt surrounding the unit’s stairs. The path from the roadside to the front door is obstructed by a large 6 foot wide pile of dirt and debris, and beer bottles from the bar next door are scattered everywhere.

Inside the unit, the air is thick and hot. Electricity and water have not been installed, although a trench has been dug for the conduit and pipes. The container’s three rooms are sweltering in the midday heat. The only breeze comes from the door being left ajar. The windows are shut tight to keep out the never-ending traffic noise and the bugs.

We yell for Mama La (Eulalia). She has been sick with an infection for the past week, and volunteers have been coming to check on her and insure she has been taking her antibiotic. We find her unable to sit up, sprawled on her bed, overheated and disoriented. The infection is in her face, possibly a bug bite, and it’s swollen and painful enough that she is taking Tramadol.

Mary Beth has been checking on her regularly and directs Kathryn and me into the room being used as a kitchen. With no running water, Mama La has had to use a bucket for a toilet and and another discarded paint bucket to wash her dishes. Old food stands in an uncovered pan on the camp stove.

A donated refrigerator will eventually be installed, but for now, without electrical, Mama keeps her food in a cooler. We have brought ice blocks- frozen, liter-sized water bottles- to resupply. I am ashamed to say the stench from the cooler was so strong I had to step outside for air. I nearly vomited from the smell. Somehow, Kathryn was able to begin unloading the food that was now floating in water, and I found a garbage bin down the road to get rid of everything that was spoiled or rancid.

We spent nearly two hours cleaning her kitchen. When she lived in a tent, Mama used buckets to store things- those were her cabinets and drawers. When she was moved into the unit, she did not want to part with her organizational system. We picked through the mess. No doubt she knew what was in each bucket, but if there was a method to the madness, we missed it. Rotting food full of bugs would be in the same container with a screwdriver and bits of old paper and string. Kathryn organized her meds and canned goods, I swept the floor and took out garbage, and Mary Beth did the dishes.

In the end, the place looked much better, and we were able to take an inventory of what food she had so the word could get passed as to what Mama still needed. Mary Beth heated some soup, and we convinced Mama to eat something so she could take her antibiotic. Her lack of teeth did not seem to slow her down- she seemed ravenous and devoured the soup.

We showed her what had been cleaned and organized and she was pleased. Before we left, Mary Beth asked Mama how old she was and she proudly told us she had turned 86 on the 13th of February. I started a round of singing Happy Birthday and Kathryn and Mary Beth joined in. Mama covered her mouth and giggled like a small child, embarrassed at being the center of attention and, yet, overjoyed to be celebrated.

We each got a hug goodbye.


Relief update:

While the island government and tourist industry works to rebuild hotels and restaurants, locals are still struggling to eat. Many people lost their jobs because the hotel or store where they worked is now closed and under repair. Some hotels, restaurants and retail are closed permanently. Low income housing was devastated throughout the island, in part because of bad location and construction quality.

When we arrived on the island in January, I began looking for volunteer opportunities. John’s supervisor put me in touch with the community outreach coordinator at the medical school. She did have an opportunity for me to help at a medical screening event, but it was a one-time sort of thing. At the screening, the level of poverty on the island was evident. People lined up to be seen by a doctor and waited for well over an hour in the sun. Most patients were over 60.

I looked into the Red Cross, but the island’s office is run by the Netherlands. The posting on their website under volunteering was a donation tab. I found an article about how the Dutch Red Cross had decided to stop relief efforts (providing a food bank, for instance) in September, 2018, because they didn’t want to foster a “dependent” attitude. However, insurance money, if they had insurance, has not arrived for many people and the Dutch government has not released all the funding promised.

I knew the Catholic Church on the island tried not to use volunteers, but rather looked for resources to employ someone to do odd jobs, such as remove lawn rubbish or clean the sanctuary. The same is true for other churches. They did not need some well-meaning American to show up temporarily. Because of past back issues, I had to pass on doing actual physical cleanup in a wildlife reserve. I kept hitting dead ends.

Fortunately, Kathryn, a Canadian and good friend on the island, reconnected with me. Over dinner she told me about an 80-year-old woman who lost everything in the hurricane. The poor woman has been living under a tarp, as are many people, since Irma hit 19 months ago. Residents are also aware the French government did not accurately report all the deaths on that side of the island (close to a thousand). In fact, no one is really sure how many illegal immigrants, mostly from Haiti, died. Without legal papers, they could not go to a designated shelter. Additionally, the number of people in need of food is still being underreported.

The good news: Kathryn heard about two men from The Netherlands, former residents of the island, who decided to do something about the need for food and step into the gap. DJ is a chef who had a vegan cafe back home. So Joost and DJ moved back to the island, and opened the Freegan Cafe. (Free + Vegan ) They spend their days collecting surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets. It’s estimated approximately 40% of food in stores world-wide is discarded-overripe bananas, vegetables that haven’t sold, tofu nearing the end of its shelf life. They turn the discarded food into delicious vegan meals and distribute them in the poorest neighborhoods. A repurposing of food.

Their communication with the locals is through WhatsApp and word of mouth. When the neighborhoods know the food truck is coming, people line up. The program has expanded to include fresh food items (tomatoes, cucumbers, grapefruit, etc.- a quasi-farmer’s market) and non-food items (children’s shoes, bed linens, clothing). Volunteers in each neighborhood let Freegan know what the current need is, as well as communicate to the neighborhood what is available. When they arrived with produce the other day, an older woman told them “You came just in time”. Her refrigerator was empty.

Kathryn, Bhuvana(another friend) and I spent yesterday morning cutting up cucumbers, juicing tangelos and grapefruit, peeling potatoes and washing dishes. The three hours flew by. In the end, we sat down and enjoyed a great meal of yellow curry and rice, vegan Schwarma and a banana chia bowl. All of us were tired, but it was that happy kind of exhaustion you get when you help someone else and forget for a brief moment about yourself. The whole experience gives me hope.