Leech Sock it to me!

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‘If you thought the Amazon had some scary parts, just wait till you hear about Borneo’

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m dating myself when I use terms like “sock it to me” in my stories. But hey, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age with a Certain Television History, which includes not only Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (of “sock it to me” fame) but Hullabaloo and That Was The Week That Was.

But this isn’t a piece about TV. (Though in a sec or two you’ll probably wish it was). I referenced those shows to explain my title and to admit to the fact that I have, as they say, been around the block a time or two.

One of the last times I went around the block — to Starbucks — they got my name amusingly wrong

I’ve also been to Guyana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, to the Amazon (twice) and to Panama (five times, but who’s counting — besides me?)

But never — ever — while reading the materials one is sent in preparation for said trips have I stumbled upon a passage like this one:

“Beware of loose netting in sleeves, backs, pockets, or pant legs that could allow leeches to crawl in. You may want to bring a pair of leech socks or buy some in Borneo.”

Leech socks”?!? “My stars and garters!” she exclaimed, continuing her Geezer-phrase sock-theme, “what’s this about leeches?!?” (BTW, the socks in the photo at the top of this post are most definitely not leech socks. They are parakeet socks.)

Another photo of the parakeet socks. Cause I’m sure as heck not going to show you any leeches — or leech socks, for that matter

See, my experience with leeches has never been an up-close-and-personal one. I’m more of an “I remember them from that scene in The African Queen” kind of person.

Our floating home on the Amazon, seen here with seaplane at the ready, was up quite a notch or three from The African Queen

And what I remember about leeches from that movie isn’t good. But our trusty trip materials went on to say that leeches “most commonly crawl through loosely-woven material, like socks” and that “leech socks are worn over one’s regular socks and tied at the calf or knee”, that they “keep leeches from penetrating, thus causing them to crawl up instead onto your pants, where you can see them.”

Another picture not of leeches or their socks. Here is a checkered foot instead. With a nifty checkered-floor background

Oh. Okay. Then what?

“You can usually feel them inching along; they can be rolled into a ball and flicked off before they can really attach.”

Um. May I ask who will be doing this “rolling” and “flicking” — of leeches?

Oh, wait. There is an alternative: “Touching their bodies with a bar of repellent will cause them to loosen and drop off.” (I’m so buying a “bar of repellent” — at any price.)

Let me take a small Leech Break to show you what, up until now, has been the scariest thing I’ve encountered on one of these trips. I didn’t have to roll anything “into a ball and flick it”, but I did kind of roll myself into a ball while clutching my armrests for dear life:

The Leech Section of our trip materials concluded by stating that “all in all, their repulsive reputation has been exaggerated.” (Not by me!) And by saying that “if you do get bitten, however, their anticoagulant can cause persistent bleeding. You may want to carry a styptic pencil to curtail the bleeding; a small supply of Band-Aids can protect your clothing.”

Oh. Right, I feel so much better now. I wonder if it’s too late to get back on that seaplane.

New York City. (Not Borneo. Not yet, anyway.) January 2020

 

 

 

Birders gotta bird

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‘Even if it’s from a rooftop, waiting out a plane delay’

Today I almost wrote about the trials and tribulations of dealing with a major renovation on a somewhat minor apartment. But just thinking about it was making me exhausted, not to mention bored.

What I wake up at 3 in the morning and think about

So instead I’ll write another story about our last birding adventure — the one where most of the spine-tingling moments happened wondering when and if we’d ever A) get to the birding location, and then B) get home once the trip was over. (See “Paradise Lost” for excruciating detail.)

What I wake up at 4 in the morning and think about

See, we’ve been on a bunch of these birding trips, but this was the first time we had any problem with the to-ing and the fro-ing. Still, the inbetween-ing was pretty sweet.

What I wake up at 5 in the morning and actually do — at least on these trips

When we had trouble getting to where we wanted to go (this was at the beginning of the trip), our intrepid guide sort of whipped up a bird-bedecked alternative. This was where we got to cross the Amazon — a river that is so wide it makes the Mighty Mississippi look more like Mighty Mouse — in a boat that I wouldn’t trust to go water-skiing on good ole Carlyle Lake. (Note: there is no bridge across the Mighty Amazon; a boat is one’s only choice.)

Mighty Amazon, at the point where the “black water” meets the “white water”. And I almost meet my Maker (or so I worried)

We crossed so that we could spend a day on the Tupana River, an unscheduled stop, but well worth our while — and worth our chances of getting dumped in the Amazonian Drink.

The Yellow Circle marks our unscheduled spot: the Rio Tupana

Of course, after we had our fun we had to retrace our steps, including getting on another boat that was, in my opinion, too small for comfort. But nobody asked my opinion, so I just clung to my life jacket and thought about Other Things. Like new kitchen cabinets.

Incidentally, we got grounded another day. So what did we do? Check out the photo at the top of this post and you’ll see. Yup, birders gotta bird. Even if it’s from the roof of the airport hotel, standing on fake wicker pool chairs. (Out of view: a bunch of befuddled spandex-sporting German tourists.)

Eventually, Intrepid Guide Man gave up on Bad Local Airline and chartered us a plane so we could get to where we were supposed to go. (And see more than airport-hotel-area birds.)

We finally make it to Sao Gabriel and the Rio Negro

We hung around Sao Gabriel just one day instead of the planned three. But, secretly, I was pleased. Because instead of staying at a decidedly-local-color-infused “hotel” in the center of bustling Sao Gabriel, we got to decamp to our floating hotel, the Untamed Amazon. Which was so luxurious — and such a welcome contrast to the Hotel Deus Me Deu, bless its little heart:

Of course, not every second spent on the Rio Marie was so relaxing. There were the two days we (or at least The Dude and I) got up at 3 so we could track down the Nocturnal Whatnot. Which we did find, but could not photograph. Because it was night. Or at least 3:30 in the morning, which is the same diff. And there was the time we chopped our way upriver (or our faithful local guides did), African Queen style:

Well, it’s getting late, and I need to get back to obsessing about bath vanities. Tonight I’m hoping I’ll wake up thinking about the time we stopped smack-dab in the middle of the godawfully-wide Amazon River to take pictures of the Meeting of the Waters.

It’ll make a welcome change from grout.

New York City. January 2020

Paradise Lost

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’It’s true: you can’t go home again’

The Amazon Basin is truly a magical place. Though I wish its magic extended to beaming us home with a wave of a palm-frond wand. The name of the tour we are on (or just ended, depending on how you want to look at it) is “Paradise Revisited”. Our guide told us it had something to do with how they used to visit this part of the Amazon in the Good Old Days, then stopped when air service got spotty. Or maybe it was because once you see the Amazon, you just have to go back. Or something else travel-romantic like that.

The Rio Marie. Sigh. Tempting to go back, for sure

But I’m betting on the spotty air service theory, since that’s what we encountered at the beginning of our Adventure. We went to the airport three times (two of which were failures) in order to fly from Manaus to this remote spot on the Rio Negro called Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira. We were there so much that we teased our guide by suggesting the tour be renamed “Airport Revisited”. Turned out that the airline (MAP) that was to fly us there got bought by some bigger outfit and all its planes in this neck of Brazil (not just ours) got rerouted to more profitable airspaces.

But Mr. Enterprising Guide pulled a charter flight rabbit out of his hat and got us there (finally).

Our accommodations in Downtown Sao Gabriel. Once we got there, that is. Sorry for cutting off your head, Dude. But it wasn’t me who took this picture

This is where the Good Part comes in. After one night (was supposed to have been three) in Sao Gabriel, we were whisked by small boat to a much larger boat that was vastly different from our Amazonian Vessel of Two Years Ago, the Tambira.

Our “Minnow”, the Tambira

If the Tambira was the African Queen, the Untamed Amazon was the Queen Mary. Not only did it have air conditioning and (gasp) hot water, but it had an amazing chef, a masseuse (we never once used her services, poor thing), and a wonderfully well-stocked wine-and-liquor cabinet. (We were served Veuve Cliquot on Christmas Eve.)

Our floating hotel, the Untamed Amazon, beckoning us with food and drink after a hard days’ birding

Toasting our Christmassy good fortune on board the Untamed Amazon

We spent five marvelous days onboard this floating hotel, taking birding excursions in smaller boats two or three times daily. (Wayne and I were part of the smaller, more intrepid band that left two mornings in a row at 3:30 to stalk the Nocturnal Curassow. Yes, we found it, though I don’t have a picture; it wasn’t light out enough for photos when we found it.)

But then, alas, it came time to depart. Which we did in marvelously exciting style — by seaplane. The Dude had been in a seaplane before; in fact, he had even flown one. But, for me, it was a new experience, and it certainly did not fail to deliver excitement.

Happy Me, excited (and very sweaty) in the Actual Untamed Amazon

I’m writing this post from the very same airport hotel where we spent three nights at the beginning of our Adventure waiting for a plane. And guess what we’re doing? Yup. Waiting for a plane. Turns out our flight from Manaus was cancelled last night. We’re leaving tonight instead — or at least I hope so.

Sunrise on one of the Nocturnal Curassow Search mornings

There are six of us, and we all have connections tomorrow in Miami. Maybe we can have a slumber party somewhere in whatever airport hotel American Airlines sticks us tonight. Because, hey, we’re all in the same boat. Er, plane.

All of us. In the same boat — in more ways than one

Manaus, Brazil. December 2019

 

The Gate Nazi at JFK

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’Forced Bag Check. Even worse, forced Caroling’

I didn’t take a picture of the Gate Nazi (I was way too intimidated to try), though in retrospect I probably should have. Instead I am showing you a picture of where we went so you can see that the bullying we experienced at the very start of our Amazonian Adventure was worth it.

The scene at the top of this post is of a river trip taken on the afternoon of the first day we arrived in Brazil — yes, less than 24 hours after stepping on a plane in New York, we were seated on a small boat on a small tributary of a medium tributary of a larger tributary of the mighty Amazon River. The miracles of air travel are definitely worth every agonizing moment along the way. Even the agonizing moment I’m about to tell you.

Another small-boat moment. Crossing the Amazon, where the White Water meets the Black. Called, natch, “The Meeting of the Waters”

We were nice and early at our gate, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to start. We had planned to carry our duffels and backpacks on board, in fear of losing our gear. (Clothes don’t matter on these trips; it’s all about the gear. I found this out the hard way on our first trip, to Kenya. I came down to dinner in a cute little sundress, much to the amusement of our birding cohort.)

The Dude and our current birding cohort confer with our guide

So there we were, chilling in our birder outfits, complete with hiking boots, when the gate agent starts in over the loudspeaker: “This is a very old-fashioned plane,” she announced, “the kind your Grandma used to take. And there are very old-fashioned storage bins. They are not made for new-fangled modern bags. If you have one of those big modern bags, you’ll have to check it here at the gate. It is complementary. Just bring it up and we will check it through to your final destination.”

Well, we ignore her, since our canvas LL Bean duffels are not what one would call “new-fangled” or even “modern”.

Then she announced, “This plane is going to be very very full. (She wasn’t kidding; it was.) In addition to new-fangled modern bags, we are going to have to check every bag if you are in Group 9.” We consulted our boarding passes; not Group 9. We go back to reading emails.

Then she started roaming around the gate, pointing at bags, seemingly randomly, and insisting they be checked. Again, we ignore her.

Me, after two hours’ sleep, out on the Tupano River, dressed similarly to the way I was the night before at Gate D12

She gets to us, and something about the cut of our respective jibs or the fact that we were dressed in hiking gear instead of sparkly tops and sweatpants must have irked her because she stops and says, “Those bags will have to be checked.” I explained that they did indeed fit in the overhead bins, that we had stowed them many times thusly. But she was having none of it. ”You must check them.”

What could I do? She, as Gate Agent, had complete and total power over who got on that plane, and how. (I say “I” because Dude Man was over in the snack bar seeking pre-flight sustenance.) My reasonable pushback on checking our duffels was having no effect, so I tried asking if we could check them to Miami, where we had a layover. (At least that might minimize the risk of holiday-season baggage misplacement.) Nothing doing. “You must check them through to your final destination.” Big sigh. But rules are rules, I guess. And Gate Nazi was unmovable.

(Later, after we were seated on the plane, we saw many other much bigger bags go trundling by our seats. Oh well, not everyone is charmed by my winningly persuasive personality. Or so it seems.)

Dude Man doing his Dude Thing less than 24 hours later

Miss Grab-The-Mike-And-Make-Loud-Announcements, heady with power, then proclaimed that no one would be able to board the plane unless he or she “gave her a big smile”. She meant it, too. I saw her accost the Boarding-Pass-Scanning Lady and tell her that a hapless wheelchair passenger couldn’t board unless she smiled. With teeth.

Our guide (and a local dog) demonstrate a wild-animal trap. Part of me wants to set it up outside Gate D12

But wait — there’s more. Then, she grabbed the mike and insisted that we all sing Jingle Bells. We thought surely she must be kidding, but no. Nurse-Ratchet-Disguised-As-A-Gate-Agent started singing, and when we didn’t immediately chime in, exhorted, “I can’t hear you!”

So, jingling all the way, we dashed not through the snow but through the throngs onto the plane and into the night.

“Oh what fun it is to ride”, it seems, does not apply to American Airlines.

The Dude in his element. More adventures coming soon, internet willing

Manaus, Brazil. December 2019

The Dude celebrates another bird-day

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‘Whooping it up, the nerdy birdy way’

You’ve heard how there’s a bumper crop of babies nine months after a power blackout, haven’t you? There was a famous blackout in New York City in July of 1977, complete with a baby boom the next April. I didn’t move to New York till 1979, so I missed out on the action that time. I was around for the blackout of 2003, but the most exciting thing I remember was being so engrossed in a client conference call — planning a Huggies shoot! in Africa! —  that I almost missed being evacuated from the Ogilvy building.

Anyway. I bring up this blackout-then-nine-months-later baby boom thing because The Dude’s family is, well, “organized” somewhat along those lines. Out of six total Whitmore siblings, four have birthdays within a few days of each other at the end of May and the beginning of June. I guess, in their family, Labor Day was kind of like a New York City blackout. If you get my drift.

Three of the five Whitmore kids here have birthdays in late May or early June. Not pictured: Older Sister Wendy. Birthday? May 31

If that weren’t coincidentally wacky enough, Close Cousin Charlie has his birthday two days after The Dude’s. Though I don’t think a blackout — or Wayne’s Dad’s Labor Day vacation — had anything to do with it. This cousin is so close, birthday-wise and just regular chummy-friendly-wise that he and The Dude often celebrate together. And this year was no exception.

Older Bro Bill looks on as Close Cousin Charlie and The Dude make friends with a snake. All three have birthdays within days of each other. Not sure about the snake

So, for this joint birthday bash, I grilled up some steaks, popped open some wine, and whipped out (of the freezer) a big ole Carvel Cake, the Whitmores’ celebration cake of choice. I served one of these babies for the Fourth of July, and we famously had one for our wedding cake. Trust me, Carvel Cakes do not disappoint. Incidentally, Close Cousin Charlie and his wife are both vegan, bless their hearts, so I also grilled some tofu. It’s a good thing I got a large Carvel Cake.

Best (delicious and large) birthday cake ever. We even scared up a couple of candles

In keeping with the spirit of close cousinly cooperation, there was, in addition to a joint birthday cake, a joint blowing-out-of-the birthday candles:

Oh, and what about birthday presents? you may be wondering. Well, The Dude and I have gotten to that stage of our relationship where one of us looks at the other about a week before whatever celebration is coming up (anniversary, Christmas, birthday) and go, “Hey, you know that trip to Borneo? That’ll be our anniversary present this year. OK?”

But this year I thought I’d be different and give his Dudeness an actual present: a book I’m making (courtesy Shutterfly) commemorating our first Big Crazy Birding Trip, the one to Kenya and Tanzania. Well, I didn’t get it done in time, but he doesn’t know about it (and he doesn’t read this blog) so heck. Happy Father’s Day, Dude Man!

One of the pictures that’ll be sure to make the cut in the Dude’s Birthday (er, Father’s Day) Book

Oh. Speaking of birds. The Dude did get a very special gift, and he got it on his Actual Birthday too: he saw a Very Rare Bird on a bike ride that morning. (Thus combining two passions, biking and birds.) He went back later on his other bike to take its picture. (This other bike is the Zero, which is an electric motorcycle; he calls both this and his recumbent “bikes”, thus causing much confusion around the Amagansett manse: “Want to go for a bike ride?” “You know I can’t keep up with you.” “I mean on the motorbike.” “Oh.”)

The Dude birding on his “bike”. It’s electric, thus absolutely silent. The better for sneaking up on his avian quarry

He took his Good Camera, the one that contains zillions of photos that have never been downloaded or shared anywhere, and snapped this picture:

And here it is: The Sandhill Crane. Very rare sighting. Even more rare sighting? A photo from The Dude’s camera

Happy Bird-day, Dude! Here’s wishing you — and that Sandhill Crane — many more years of nerdy, birdy adventure.

Amagansett, New York. June 2019

“While we’re still young”

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‘When it comes to age, everything is relative.’

My Favorite Younger Sister Laura (at left above, smiling and be-hatted) has a lot going on and is often in a hurry. When someone dawdles, say, at a traffic light that has just turned green — or spends too much time chatting up the checkout girl at Costco, she is wont to mutter “while we’re still young”.

She does this so often that when her adorable daughter Natalie was only about two, she would parrot her, much to our amusement.

But, amusement aside, “while we’re still young” has begun to resonate with me, and not just at traffic lights.

See, we helped The Child celebrate her birthday last week. And I realized that she is now the same age I was when I pulled up my socks and moved myself to New York City. This was a pretty brave thing for me to do at the time. (And yes, there’s a story, called “Take a Letter, Miss Henry”.) I didn’t know a soul here, but I decided I needed to get my Ad Career into gear before I got too old.  Continue reading

Song of My Selfie

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‘A Whitman’s Sampler’

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” So sayeth the Internet, no doubt referring to those self-portraits otherwise known as “selfies”. Now I should point out, before I get too carried away with my mangling of Leaves of Grass, that the portrait at the top of this post is not actually a selfie. It may be difficult to imagine in this age of the ubiquitous hand-held device, but there were no cellphones in Seventeenth Century Holland. Though it sure looks as though those burghers are hamming it up for Instagram, doesn’t it?

Twenty-First Century Burgher Selfie. As you can see, I am not immune to the lure of the self-portrait. Even when being run down by a bike messenger

Speaking of hamming it up, I’ve been known to indulge in the odd selfie. In fact, I’ll be peppering this post with a few of my favorites — because why not? Continue reading

Planes, boats, and sorta kinda automobiles

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’Getting there actually is part of the fun. If you’re a Crazy Birder, that is.’

Our chigger bites from our Guyana trip hadn’t even healed when we were off again, this time to Western Panama. (See ‘Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid’ and ‘Up in the air, Junior Birdman’ for hair-raising Guyanian adventures involving hitchhiking bugs and bullet ants.)

The first Panamanian Plane. De-icing outside, pre-birding inside

A few years ago we started traveling with this company whose motto is “seriously fun birding”. (Look out: plug coming.) And I’m happy to report Truth in Advertising: Field Guides takes both the birding and the fun, well, seriously. Of course, not everyone has the same idea when it comes to “fun”. Take the travel — please.

Our 4-wheel limo. Standing-room only, but with terrific air-conditioning

We’ve found that there seems to be an inverse correlation between gorgeous birds and efficient transportation. The countries with the best birds have, basically, the worst roads. (The teeth-rattling tarmac in Kenya comes to mind.) Or no roads to speak of. (Amazonian Brazil and Downcountry Guyana, I’m talking about you.) Continue reading

Up in the air, Junior Birdman

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‘Just not upside-down, if you please.’

I amaze (and amuse) myself sometimes with the mere fact that I go on these Crazy Birding Adventures. (See last week’s “Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid” for gory Guyanian details.)

Not only are there bugs and spiders and scorpions to deal with (along with the occasional dollop of gecko poop on one’s pillow) but these trips usually have several of my own personal psychological bugaboos layered on top, including (but not limited to) an almost-paralyzing fear of heights. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, there’s The Snake Thing.

Before we move on to heights, here’s that snake — a big ole rattler, no less — that The Dude and Ron were trying to photograph in my story from last week

You may recall from my story “The Year of the Snake” that I have a particularly acute aversion to creatures of the slithery persuasion. Unlike, say, Intrepid Fellow Birder Linda (who snapped this snake), you won’t hear me cooing “That’s the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen” about this specimen we found on a nighttime hike. Though I did have the gumption to take this movie. So there’s that. Continue reading

Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid

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‘But we did catch the Birding Bug’

If you’ve missed me (and/or my stories), may you find your reward in Heaven. Or maybe South America. Which is where The Dude and I spent the last couple of weeks — in Guyana, which is a country we had to look up on Google Earth.

We’d both remembered that movie Papillon, with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, where Steve’s character escapes from Devil’s Island in French Guiana. But we couldn’t decide whether Guiana was in South America and Guyana was in Africa. Or the other way around. (The Guiana/Guyana thing didn’t help.) And of course there’s Uganda (where we’ve been) and Ghana (where we’ve not), complicating matters even more. Turns out Guiana and Guyana are both in South America. But only one of them is famous for its Kool-Aid.

It drove our new Guyanian Pal Francis — here with me atop the Georgetown Lighthouse — crazy to realize that The One Fun Fact we knew about his homeland was The Kool-Aid Thing

Yup. Guyana is where the Rev. Jim Jones took his followers and, ultimately, treated them to a Kool-Aid Party. Grape, it was. (Take a sec to check out Jim Jones’ Wikipedia entry. It actually lists his “Occupation” as “Cult Leader”.) Continue reading