If the Shoebill fits, find it

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‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet.

So I’ll skip the parts, funny though they are, about how we got to the boat that got us to the dugout canoes that got us to the swamp. And skip right to finding the darned Shoebill.

Yes, dugout canoes were involved. You may recall that this is not my first experience with dugout canoes. This is, um, my third. Once on the Amazon, and once in Panama. In fact, I’ve now been in dugout canoes more times than I’ve been in regular, normal, non-dugout ones. As someone who has never been what you’d call comfortable around water, I’m hoping I can break this habit, and break it soon.

But, as the only way to find this elusive Shoebill was to get into dugout canoes and roam around a swamp, that’s what we did.

The view from my canoe of one of the other canoes — stuck in the reeds and such. Note that our Boat Guy is standing precariously in the front so he can search for the Shoebill

The canoes had motors, but we couldn’t use them much, because a) it was too shallow, and b) because the boats kept getting stuck in the reeds. When we got stuck (a lot) the Boat Person in the fronts of the boats (see photo for how that guy/gal perched up there, mainly so he/she could scan the horizon for that darned Shoebill) would hop out and push the boat, kind of like the way Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen, would hop out and push said African Queen. Only I don’t think our boat-pushers had to worry about leeches. Snakes, yes. Leeches, no.

I know this because our guy got out once to scout ahead, encountered a snake, and soundly beat it with a long pole he kept on hand for occasions such as this. (He also said it came in handy in case he stepped into a ‘hole’ in the swamp and sank in over his head. Which happened. Three times.)

Well. Our three boats were supposed to stick together. It would be a shame if one boat found the Shoebill, and the other boats missed it. But our boater/guides assured us that this wouldn’t be a problem. They had cellphones, you see. If one boat found the Shoebill, they would just alert the other boats. Piece of birding cake.

Let’s just say they fudged a bit. Our Boat Guy did have a cellphone, which he used. A lot. Little did we know the other boats didn’t have cellphones. So who knows who our guy was talking to. Maybe his Mom? Anyway, our boats got separated. For hours. And I know I’m prone to exaggeration, but not this time. We were seriously separated for about two hours. Two hours of sort-of paddling, sort-of pushing, sort-of motoring through a swamp.

At one point one of the guys in my boat said he had to ‘go to the bathroom’. (Me, I think I’ll never ‘go to the bathroom’ again in my life after being locked in one.) I told him to ‘go ahead; I wouldn’t look’. He didn’t take me up on my non-offer.

We, of course, didn’t know our boat wasn’t communicating with the others, and finally decided that if we couldn’t find the Shoebill, it was time to find our way out of the swamp. After about another hour, we emerged, only to see both the other boats filled with fellow birders wildly gesticulating. One was doing so because they had found the Shoebill (!) The other folks were frantically signalling — because their boat had run out of gas.

The Object of our Attention, stolen hot off The Dude’s camera: a bird as big as a Volkswagen. Hard to miss, once you’ve found it. But there’s the rub

I’m thinking that the Shoebill was pretty darned well worth the trouble. (I mean, take a look at that thing!) And I’m also thinking that those boater/guide guys and gals won’t get booked again by our Birder Company any time soon.

Near Lake Victoria, Entebbe, Uganda. May 2018

One from Column ‘A’

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‘Alice’s Adventures in Astoria. Free Schmeeg lesson included’

No, I didn’t climb the Column. Nor did I hike up the Head. (I have done both — the Column climbing and the Head hiking — but being deathly afraid of heights, believe me, once was enough.)

But the Peeps who tagged along on my recent Visit to Mom and Sis were more than game, so up they went, a-climbing and a-hiking. (The pic at the top of this post shows said Peeps peeping over the top of the Column. Which is in Astoria, Oregon. In case you’re craving column background, you can read all about it here. )

Me. Not climbing the Column (seen looming in background)

My Head. Next to the Tillamook One. (Which I am most def not hiking)

View from the top of Said Head. (Photo not taken by me)

Turns out that abstaining from heights can have its dangers too. I was pooped on by a seagull while not hiking the Head. I swore the darned thing laughed at me afterward but The Dude says there are no Laughing Gulls in the Northwest, so I guess it was my imagination. Though the icky white streak on my track pants was definitely real. Good thing I learned from previous Birding Adventures to always carry Kleenex in my pants pocket.

‘Hey! That’s Haystack Rock!’ And no, I have absolutely no idea what it is I am pointing at

Yup. We had loads of adventures on our Trip West, some not even involving heights (or bird poop). The Child and her BF and The Dude and I met up in Vancouver (the Washington One, not the British Columbian One), where my Beloved Younger and Only Sister lives, then scooted out to Seaside to see my Mom.

Seen on one of my morning Seaside Coffee Walks. My ‘free advice’? Don’t get a tattoo. Oh, and avoid seagulls — or at least walking under them

Incidentally, ‘cannibis’ (AKA ‘pot’), like tattooing, is legal Out West, and we also saw plenty of places to score (er, ‘buy’) weed on our trip. The biggest Pot Place in Seaside is located next to the police station. Though there is also one on Route 26 right next to the Dairy Queen, which seems even more appropriate. We noticed lots of activity at many emporiums like these on our drive to Seaside, since it happened to be 4/20,Though the kids did have to explain that all that pot-buying had absolutely nothing to do with Hitler’s birthday.

Chamber of Commerce nightmare. Seen across the street from the Best Mexican Restaurant ever. I forgot the name, but it’s in Seaside. Just, um, find this sign and go across the street

I’m a bit fuzzy and jet-lagged (and somewhat daunted by the prospect of washing loads of poop-festooned clothing), so I’m going to cheat a bit this week and offer you less text and more photos. Here’s some more fun signage, seen on our side trip to Astoria. Which, incidentally, was once its Own Country (sort of, anyway), founded by John Jacob Astor as a fur-trading post and his own personal kingdom.

Worlds of caffeinated options also abound in Astoria. You can’t walk 20 feet without passing a coffee shop. This one was in a converted garage

These days Astoria is a Kingdom of Hipsters, its streets studded with thrift shops, micro-breweries, and more coffee shops than you can shake a gluten-free pretzel stick at. But, predating hipsters by a long espresso shot is a place we affectionately call the Bong Store, where we made an obligatory visit. This is a place located right under the Scary-Ass Bridge (actually, the Astoria-Kegler Bridge) that sells cigars, porn, all kinds of jerky — and, yes, has a whole room full of bongs. (They also used to sell swords and scabbards. But when I asked about them, they said sorry, no more swords, but they did stock crossbows and dart guns. Oh.)

Before I forget. Here’s Mt. Hood — twice. Nobody in our group climbed it. But not because they didn’t want to

This post is getting looooong, and I have to get cracking on that laundry. But I did promise a Schmeeg lesson. This is a crazy game that involves hiding quarters and slapping tables. Here’s how my sister ‘splains it:

And here’s what it looks like when you play it:

As you can see, a Good Time Was Had By All. Save the quarters you get in change from that Pot Purchase, and go ahead and try out some Schmeeg. See you next week — and thanks again for your hospitality, Sister and Mom!

Our Seaside Selfie Selves say ‘so long and see you soon!’

New York City. April 2018

Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol

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‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”. Continue reading

Crocodile Dumdee

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‘What you don’t know can hurt you.’

A couple of years after The Dude and I got married, we took a trip to Australia. This was a very long time ago. So long ago that when I googled ‘Crocodile Dundee’ after coming up with that groaner of a title, I found out the movie came out after we took our trip. So we weren’t familiar with lines like That’s not a knife…this is a knife’, much less with the fact that practically everything in Australia can pretty much kill you.

Speaking of my punsterific headline, let me say right off the bat that I don’t mean to pick on The Dudeman. It’s just that the photo of him in his Crocodile hat looks, well, more ‘DundeeLike’ than mine.

Me, sporting my Crocodile Dundee (er, ‘Dumdee’) hat. And not much else. I’m perched by the pool that had all the snakes in it, soon to be described in horrifyingly hissy detail

Because, let’s face it. We were both pretty dumb on this trip. Granted, this was long before TripAdvisor or (probably) even the internet itself. (Not sure; I’ll have to ask Al Gore.)

At any rate, we were young, we were naive, and we were game for pretty much anything. We were also pretty poor, but I had oodles of frequent flier miles from all my work-related plane-hopping for Ogilvy. (See ‘Around the World in 80 Shoots’) So we cashed ’em in and flew Qantas to Cairns. Where, before we could even grab a rental car, we were ourselves grabbed — right there in the terminal — by a couple of guys who said “Hey, wanna go diving on the Great Barrier Reef? Come with us!” (Use your imagination for the Australian accents.)

No, we didn’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge. But yes, we did hop right on this dive boat

Nope, we were not certified divers. In fact, I had never even tried diving before. But we strapped on that gear and dove right in. There are still marks from my fingernails etched into that boat’s wooden sides. Continue reading

Malcolm and the Duchess

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‘What passes for Royalty on either side of The Pond’

I’m staring at my le Creuset, thinking of the Duchess of Devonshire. Wondering if I can squeeze out another batch of her boeuf bourguignon before the weather agrees that it’s Spring.

The Duchess was the last of several Mitford Sisters, two of whom were famous writers, and two of whom were famous Nazis. (One, Unity, shot herself when Hitler dumped her for Eva Braun.)

While her sisters were writing books and dabbling in fascism, Deborah was saving Chatsworth, her husband’s estate. Bless her, she was able to get people to pay good money to check out her Elvis Presley memorabilia and flocks of fine poultry.

Malcolm Forbes wasn’t a Duchess (or even a Duke), but he shared her fondness for celebrities and eggs, particularly Faberge. Malcolm was powerful, knew a lot of famous people, and had lots of houses–certainly more than Debo (as she was known to friends and fam, but not to me or Malcolm.)

Me, posing for the bus-riding paparazzi at one of Malcolm’s houses. See how I got there in a sec

Malcolm was a patient of The Dude’s Dad (who was a urologist). Very Important People (mostly Very Important Men) came to see him. Some of them (like Malcolm) became quite attached to The Dude’s Dad, who, in addition to being a great doctor, was also a very charming man. Continue reading

The A-Hole Car

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‘Dealing with a gang of turkeys on Amtrak’

Actually, I wasn’t sure what to call that bunch of turkeys. Except not to call them for dinner (ba-da-bum). So I checked good ole Google. Turns out there are a variety of terms: ‘muster’, ‘posse’, ‘rafter’ being among them. The only one I decided against was ‘school’, since the ‘gang’ I’m going to describe seemed decidedly uneducated. At least in the mores and folkways of polite train-riding.

The story I’m going to tell happened when Dude and I were Amtraking our way home after spending a most delightful day and a half with The Child up in the Boston/Cambridge area where she lives and works. Continue reading

Like oil and river water

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‘We’re one crazy mixed-up couple’

They say that opposites attract. Well, The Dude and I have been married more years than most of you Dear Readers have been alive. Which is pretty amazing in and of itself. But it’s even more amazing given how, well, opposite the two of us are.

In fact, I’d call us bi-polar opposites, given that our differences often drive us crazy.

Okay, there’s the easy stuff. I’m coffee; he’s tea. I’m radio-on-in-the-car; he’s I-want-to-appreciate-the-silence. I like parties; he’s I’ve-worked-hard-all-day-and-want-to-crash-at-home. I like novels; he only reads non-fiction. (‘Why would I want to read something that someone made up?‘) I love art; he only likes art that looks like what it’s supposed to be and/or looks like it was very hard to do.

Pointe Hilton by Jack Mendenhall. Meets both The Dude’s criteria: looks like what it is, and indeed looks like it was very hard to do

And what is it with hot and cold? Has there ever been a married couple who agrees on the thermostat? There he is, in the dead of winter, wearing a tee-shirt and turning up the heat; I say put on a sweater — preferably one of the many I’ve knit for you. Continue reading

The Curse of the Potoo

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‘We spot a most unusual specimen — and suffer the cosmic consequences’

Nope. That’s not the ‘unusual specimen’ in the photo at the top of this story. That’s Chuck. Or, as he came to be known on this trip (by me anyway) ‘UpChuck’. For reasons which will soon become apparent.

The ‘unusual specimen’ in this story is a bird called, I kid you not, the Potoo. I first heard about the Potoo when The Dude and I were birdwatching in Panama last year. Dude Man kept asking ‘Hey, can you find us a Potoo?’ And Guide Man would just smile and shake his head, as if to say ‘That’ll be the day’. And I’d be like ‘Potoo? Potoo? That’s not a real bird, is it?’

See, I thought The Dude and The Guide were having me on. That looking for a Potoo was kind of like going on a ‘Snipe Hunt’. Which, if you grew up in the Midwest like me, you remember was an elaborate practical joke that Big Boys would play on Smaller Boys, like at Scout Camp. Or sometimes the joke would be played on Naive High-School Girls by Naughty High-School Boys. ‘Hey, wanna go in the woods tonight? On a Snipe Hunt? (Snicker Snicker)’

Potoo? Oh, wacky little Potoo? You in there?

Continue reading

Eat. Or be eaten.

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‘Up close and personal with paranha, army ants, and other Amazon locals’ 

“Don’t look now, but there’s a half-naked man with a machete up ahead on the path,” fluted Paul in his Upperclass Brit Voice. And yes, there certainly was.

This was on, oh, Day Two or so of our Amazonian Adventure. The one where we spent two weeks on a boat traveling to the upper reaches of the Rio Aripuana, dubbed The River of Doubt by none other than Teddy Roosevelt.

Me, channeling my Inner Teddy on the Rio Aripuana. That’s our Base Boat, the Tumbira, in the background, a tad far away for comfort. For me, anyway

As the days went by we became more familiar with ‘men with machetes’, and actually quite happy to have them around. (In the Amazon, carrying a machete is kind of like carrying a Swiss Army Knife.)

“You call that a knife? THIS is a knife!”

There was a guy we met on another path on another day who even gave our Fearless Leader Bret a bit of a pause. I was transfixed by his Chicago Cubs hat and did not notice that he had been carrying a rather large firearm. Turns out he was out scouting for a jaguar that had been terrorizing his village. Continue reading

It’s a small world, after all

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‘It took me nearly as long to get to Roosevelt Island as it did to get to the Amazon River’

I didn’t get his name, but I’m betting it was ‘Tony’. He was the guy manning the gate that lets you into the waiting area to ride the tram back from Roosevelt Island.

One of my besties (hi, Laurie!) and I had spent a most marvelous time strolling around the Island, checking out the new monument to Mr. Roosevelt, the old Smallpox Hospital (where they used to quarantine the poor sufferers, bless their hearts), and even the new Cornell Labs (where they let us in, but only so far in; they have very nice light fixtures in their cafeteria).

Monument to Mr. R. One of my other bestie’s sons really really wants to skateboard here

You can’t go in because it is ‘unstable’ (not that I’d want to), but here is the Smallpox Hospital in all its tumbledown glory

Continue reading