Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

My time in Rockport is almost at an end. I head back tomorrow via Amtrak to the crazy-busy streets of Philadelphia. Broad Street will be filled with Mummers and New Years Day revellers. But I'm most looking forward to curling up with Nanuq and Tug and getting my house in order.

I love coming here, and not just because I get to see my parents. Only about 7,000 people live in Rockport in the winter, and I enjoy walking the Old Garden Path along the Atlantic Ocean. The trail leads through bramble brush to overlooks for quiet contemplation, where regardless of the time of year you can hear the water splashing against the rocks and inhale the fishy, salty smell of the sea. A walk down Bearskin Neck off Main Street rewards with good views of Motif No. 1 (above), one of the most painted and photographed sites in the world.

The goal is to hold the ocean in my mind once I return to my life, to remember how it centers and feeds me. I hope you have a place that does the same for you, and that you will carry it in your mind in 2008. Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My New Boyfriend

When visiting one's parents as an adult, one expects to endure some indignities: sleeping on the couch, being spoken to and, therefore, responding like a 13-year-old, etc. Getting humped by a dog, however, is not one of them.

My new boyfriend is a 14-month-old cockapoo. Alfie is a little hairer and a lot blonder than I usually like my men. I do, however, admire his aggressive approach, which echoes the human dating game.

Last night as I warmed myself by the fire, Alfie approached with his favorite toy, a purple ball stuffed inside a sock-like yellow packet. As I threw the toy across the room, we began the mating dance: he feigning interest and then, when I showed some, retreating to the other side of the room. Then, suddenly, with no preparation, he got on his hind legs. At first I thought he was trying to be cute, but then he thrust himself upon my right arm. I pushed him away, but he persisted. This continued for several minutes, as my mother put forth a torrent of inappropriate comments about what her grandchild might look like. Lessons I learned from this experience:

  • If you are not interested, do not stoop to his level
  • Do not mistake cute looks for innocent intentions
  • Do not engage in cat and mouse unless you can back the game with actions

I worried about his feelings, but Alfie has moved on. Just this morning he was shut into the bedroom with me. He stared at the door and refused to look at me. He cried and cried, until my mother opened the door and released him.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Turtle No. 21

After sleeping off our night walk, we had a lunch of rice, beans and pickled vegetables prepared by a local mother-daughter team. Then Chau and I built nests for the hatchery. These consist of sheets of chicken wire sown into cylinders with plastic fly line, then draped over one end with wire netting. The nests are placed over man-made turtle nests to keep out birds and other animals.

My elaborate stitching won me the award for most perfectionistic. Even on vacation I couldn't help but undertake my responsibilities with utmost seriousness. It took me three times as long as Chau to finish my nests. Afterward, he and I used silvery paint to cover the metal grates on the windows and doors of the project site. Then a group of us went to the hatchery to dig holes and check on the turtle eggs, a responsibility each group undertook every few hours.

No change. For several hours we read and played cards. Then someone ran back from the hatchery: a group of baby olive ridleys had been born.

We rushed to the hatchery, where the turtles clambered over each other in an effort to flee the nest. They looked like a cuter version of squirming earthworms. We donned plastic gloves to protect us and the ridleys from species-specific germs, and each person took turns counting out five turtles and putting them in a plastic bucket. I picked up Turtle No. 21 between my thumb and forefinger as he flailed. He measured about 2 centimeters but felt strong.

We continued in this fashion until we got to Turtle No. 102. As we gathered our things to treck to the ocean, Tammy and Roxanna noticed a tiny squirming head deep in the sand. I plucked Turtle No. 103 from his coocoon, and we headed for the beach.

Our entire GAP Adventures group joined us, as did seven newcomers from Great Britain. We stood about 20 feet from the water. Tammy tipped over the plastic pail holding the turtles, and they began their journey to the sea. Over the next 15 minutes, in a light, refreshing rain, we watched them flop over the sand, making light tracks in their wait. They approached the water one by one, and as the tide came in, it gently swept them away.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Present

Among my favorite presents this year was a donation my parents made on my behalf to Caribbean Conservation Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles using research, training, advocacy, education, and environmental protection.

On Christmas morning, I became the proud "mother" of Jamur, a 1,000-pound leatherback sea turtle who gave birth on Chiriqui Beach, Panama (on the Atlantic side), on May 29, 2007. I weigh a lot less than Jamur, but we're about the same length: 60 inches. CCC's caretakers tagged Jamur with a portable satellite in Panama, so now we can track the movements of this critically endangered turtle. As of last week, Jamur (yes, that's her in the photo!) was on her way to Spain. I'm a proud parent!

Leatherbacks are the world's largest, most striking sea turtles, traveling thousands of miles on only their powerful front flippers and an insatiable appetite for jellyfish. I didn't see any leatherbacks in Costa Rica, which isn't surprising: according to the Sea Turtle Conservation Project, the population of leatherbacks in and around the Pacific coastline has decreased by 95 percent since 1980.

Far more populous (but still endangered) are olive ridleys, the type of turtle we tracked at Playa Matapalo (photo from NOAA). The name comes from the color of the shell, or carapace, which can grow up to 30 inches. Like the other six remaining sea turtles, olive ridleys have been on earth far longer than we have: 150 million years. They precede the dinosaurs.

Still, we're doing our best to obliterate these ancient species by abusing the environment, neglecting people. Sea turtles are threatened by ocean pollution and seaside development. They drown in shrimp nets and in tuna and swordfish fisheries. Along the beaches where sea turtles lay their eggs live thousands of people who cannot make a living wage or get decent health care. The poor and marginalized take grown turtles for meat, shells and leather, to maintain their homes and health or to feed a drug habit. They remove sea turtle eggs from nests and sell them to willing buyers.

It was possible, perhaps likely, we would not see a baby olive ridley during our six-day stay at Playa Matapalo. So many things must go right to bring a baby turtle into the world. A female turtle must lay her eggs at the site where she was born. Already, she will have swum thousands of miles to return to her birth beach. She approaches shore in darkness, traveling slowly over the sand until finding a comfortable spot--the sand the correct consistency, the temperature right--to dig a nest several feet deep. She lays about 100 eggs, then covers them with sand before returning soundlessly to the sea.

The eggs incubate for 45 to 65 days before hatching, if the weather cooperates, if bacteria, ants or other insects do not discover them. The one- to one-and-a-half inch turtles flail, pushing sand out of their way to reach the top of the nest. Once they arrive, they swing their small fins toward the sea, moving faster than you might imagine, a good thing since predators as varied as birds, dogs, pigs and people stalk them along the way. Those that reach the water float for miles, dodging sea birds and fish. The males never return to shore, the sea forever their home. Females begin returning to lay eggs about two decades later. The cycle begins again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fleas and Flowers

After my first night tracking poachers, I felt old. Not like an old soul. Just plain old.

I took the 3 a.m. shift with Chau, Corina, Helena, Arella and Kirsten, a young woman from Germany who with a local man oversees the turtle project. I missed high tide, the hardest time to walk (shown to the right), but knew what I was in for. Roxanna, Monica and Tammy had returned several hours earlier from their shift, groaning and sighing that I was "in for a hike."

Things didn't start out well. I awoke to blackness. Groping for something to steady me, I fell from the bunk and landed on my ass. Humiliating and painful, but once I got outside in the damp air and drank a cup of coffee, I felt better.

We walked about 24 kilometers (around 15 miles). Hiking on wet sand takes considerable strength because the moisture seems to suck you into the earth. I wanted to free my feet from the confines of their hiking boots so they could feel the cool abrasiveness of the sand. Instead, I focused on staying upright. After the moon sank below the horizon, we walked under a blanket of darkness, together but apart. My eyeglasses fogged and I struggled to see just a few feet in front of me. I tried to center myself and my thoughts: who I am, where I am, why I am. If nothing else, I thought, I can say I have seen the Pacific Ocean from the shores of Costa Rica.

I felt self-conscious because I had trouble keeping up, but Chau and Corina looped back from time to time to keep me company. We also had a constant companion in Pulga ("Flea" in Spanish), who sometimes walked the beach for all three shifts. Corina and I sat on a huge piece of driftwood as the sun emerged from the clouds, mist smokily rising from the ocean. She told me about her boyfriend in Peru and reassured me I would enjoy the trip even though I don't run marathons or do triathalons, like many of our companions.

Instead of walking back by beach, we took an interior path through the trees and saw white-faced monkeys. We stopped to look until they stared back and we feared they would pelt us with poop. Farther along the path, a sloth with a baby on her belly hung lazily from a tree. Along the way we saw grasshoppers, spiders curled in delicate lace webs and a dragonfly-like insect with luminescent wings. Orange and yellow irises bloomed along the trail, and tiny daisies dotted the forest floor. Near a home I saw a large, bell-shaped plant with tiny hanging red flowers.

By the time we returned to camp, I had forgotten about my fall and the glasses. I sat down to a pancake with honey and fresh pineapple, and then rushed back to our room to write. But just in case, I popped in a couple of Ibuprofen.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Wish They Would Eat Bananas

The Mitchell Report released this week on steroid use in baseball offered little new information. We had heard the rumors about--and witnessed the bulging muscles of--Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi before. Lenny Dykstra, one of my favorites, had long ago winked at a reporter and told him "powerful vitamins" helped him morph from scrawny to solid. Still, my heart fell a bit when I read parts of Mitchell's 409-page tome. I had no problems when I had heard that players I disliked or didn't care about had used steroids. But I wasn't too happy to learn some of my childhood heroes might have taken them.

A major source for the investigation was Kirk Radomski, a former ballboy and clubhouse attendant for the New York Mets. Randomski joined the team a year before the Amazins' remarkable run to the 1986 World Series, a year when the team won 108 games and dominated with three 15-win pitchers and some of the most aggressive hitting in major league baseball. More than half the players on the 36-man roster weighed less than 200 pounds, and the highest salary was $2.8 million. (For comparison, 26 of 40 men on the 2007 Mets weighed more than 200 pounds, and the highest salary paid was $14.5 million.)

Everyone hated the Mets, which made me love them more. In summer 1986 our family moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, putting us in the eye of the (baseball) storm. At a time when I could barely communicate with my parents--because they "made" us move, because they were adults, because, essentially, they existed--the Mets were our common denominator. Regardless of my mood on any particular day, my defenses fell away when our family met at the television to watch our Mets. The voices of Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner soothed my adolescent soul, and for nine blissful innings our family found a shared language. My heroes: Gary Carter, Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez.

While other teenagers rebelled by smoking weed or drinking and staying out late, I rebelled by wearing my Mets cap to school. My appalled parents worried I would never fit in, but I loved my blue-and-orange hat and how it prompted disgusted looks from my New England peers. I dared them to accept me and, if they didn't, my fandom gave me a reasonable excuse for the rejection. My clearest memory of pure happiness: howling and rising stickily from our leather sofa as a tiny white ball sailed through Bill Buckner's legs to drive home Ray Knight in the bottom of the 10th of Game 6 of the World Series. Writing about it, even now, still brings tears to my eyes. (Thanks for the pictures, Sports Encyclopedia.)

Now, I wonder, were these guys on the juice? Was that year the beginning of the end for Darryl Strawberry, whose swing remains the most beautiful I've ever seen? Were brawls with other teams born of competitive spirit or mood swings?

Steroids won't take my memories away from me. They also won't make me stop loving baseball. Like most fans, I've accepted "performance-enhancing drugs" as part of the modern game, and I blame the owners, the union and Major League Baseball for their prevalence, not the players. If any of them really cared about steroids, then we wouldn't have this problem. But as with most things today, making money is more important than the health of people or the "integrity" of the game (which I'm not sure ever existed, anyway). The goverment investigation of steroids in baseball is based on a disengenious premise anyway--that drug use among professional athletes matters in our "war against drugs." Does anyone believe the actions of this small group of wealthy men impact the violence and drug use in our communities? If so, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Much has changed in 21 years, in baseball and in life. I now cheer for my hometown Phils, and I accept that my heroes sometimes look like they just stepped off the World Wrestling Foundation stage. If I had a child, I would warn her against idealizing professional athletes and advise her to model herself after her grandparents and her teachers. But I'd still take her to a baseball game to experience the same pure joy and excitement I did more than two decades ago. And I'll continue to hope that my heroes today--Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins--won't let me down. I'm crossing my fingers that these guys and a few others still like doing things the old-fashioned way: with grit, determination and training. I paraphrase a favorite quote I read in the Inquirer from Phils pitcher Ryan Madson: "Who needs steroids? Eat a banana."

Friday, December 14, 2007

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Hatchery

The vegetation in Costa Rica is both familiar and unfamiliar--familiar in that I had seen most of the plants and fruits before; unfamilar in that I recognized them from the garden center or grocery store. I saw a croton similar to the one I keep by my desk, as well as the same purple-green striped vine my friend Christa rooted for me two years ago that unfurls Rapunzel-like down the side of my file cabinet. We passed plants with elephant ear-shaped leaves, unfamiliar ivies and small bursts of yellow, red and orange flowers.

Homes are squat but painted lovely pastels: teal, pink, yellow. As we traveled over the pock-marked road, children and adults rode bicycles beside us, and dogs ran barking toward the bus, dogs of all sizes and shapes but rarely an identifiable breed. I quickly learned these dogs have their own parallel society, patrolling the roads and visiting their friends and eating dinner out of the compost bin. Cows grazed in soccer fields and in palm groves, and chickens wandered from yard to street to dinner table.

Tammy, Roxanna, Monica and I headed to the hatchery as soon as we arrived in Playa Matapalo. It wasn't as large or ornate as I had imagined. Twenty "nests," each about two to three feet across, had been set in sand inside what looked like a small tennis court. Each nest was covered in netting to protect the baby turtles from predators. I took my first assignment: patroling the beach from 3:00 to 6:00 a.m. to scare away poachers.

While I enthusiastically accepted the assignment, I worried I wouldn't be able to walk the miles required. In preparation for the trip, I had begun hiking the nature trail at Haverford College, a level path of less than 3 miles. The walks reawakened my love of nature but reminded me how long it had been since I had taken time for myself, time to exercise and reflect and breathe. Time to look myself in the eye again. I felt apart--older than most of the group but young enough to have no excuses and, seemingly, no limitations.

Our home base was not as rustic as I had imagined: we had a shower (cold water only), running water and serviceable bunks. We giggled as we hung the mosquito nets that would protect us from being eaten alive. I chose a top bunk, thinking I would enjoy looking out the window at the trees and flowers.