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Update: Recent Writings and Butterfly Collecting

I haven’t been blogging with any regularity lately, but I have been writing elsewhere. I contributed writing and research to an upcoming National Geographic Travel book Wild, Beautiful Places which is, amazingly, already available for pre-order on Amazon, if you’re so keen! Last month I published a piece on Lord Howe Island’s rat crisis on Atlas Obscura. It delves into the hundred-year battle between humans, rodents, and owls to save the island’s incredible biodiversity, and in particular, one very pretty palm tree. I’ve just written about the North American French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon for FranceToday.com, which has been a wonderful reminder of the roadtrip I took to get there in 2014. My beloved man chauffeured me from Virginia, through upstate New York, Montreal, Quebec, through the forests of New Brunswick, across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia, finally arriving in Halifax, where we caught a plane to Saint Pierre. Once we arrived, we spent four days eating scallops and quiche, drinking wine, wandering the town’s few streets, sailing around the harbor, and never getting in a car. It was divine.

Since I’ve been doing much more research lately than writing, I’d like to start a new series here where I talk about some of the things I glean from all these unrelated projects. For instance, recently I learned that:

My hope is that if I jot down these findings, I may actually commit them to memory. I have such a hard time remembering all the things I research (it’s much better when I’m writing, but even then, whole subjects can be easily lost). I recently had lunch with my old mentor at National Geographic Traveler who said she suffered the same problem of not retaining details, or even entire stories, from issue to issue. There is just too much out there, too much to know! If I keep a little running tab here though, I’ll know where to find it all again. A little exercise in digital hoarding, if you will.

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“Honeymooning” in Malaysia

Tioman Island, Malaysia. My friend and longtime travel partner Maddy (sometimes called Fireball here) will soon be betrothed to a wonderful man. Reflecting on her upcoming nuptials, I was reminded of a “honeymoon” that Maddy, her mother Lilly, and I took in the spring of 2014. We were visiting Lilly while she was on location in Malaysia shooting the first season of the Netflix series Marco Polo. After we had exhausted the tourist attractions around the movie studio (namely, Legoland and a Hello Kitty theme park) Lilly took us on an adventure to Tioman, a mysterious dragon-shaped island in the South China sea. We joined the honeymooning set at the Japamala resort where we amused ourselves by photographing monkeys, playing cards, eating heaps of mango sticky rice, and flopping about in a sea as warm and calm as a bath. Here are some photos from that memorable trip:

Havana, First Impressions

Havana, Cuba.

Havana, the old town at least, is the dreamiest blend of design and age, like a shard of glass beaten beautiful by the sea. We see buildings the color of conch shells, a limestone cathedral pocked with age, palm fronds bristling against patinated bell towers, scalloped stained glass windows. Bird cages and their captives hang outside doorways as if to replace doorbells.  I imagine renting an apartment here where I could write and drink in the nude while I wait for my underthings to dry on my wrought-iron balcony.

Live music spills into the street from every direction, prodding us to wiggle as we walk. A three-man band lure us onto a patio for a listen and a round of mojitos. Sir and Toots request their favorite – Yolandaand the band plays a heartrending tribute. The music drowns out the mewing of kittens, orange little bastards that roam around the patio rubbing their scrawny backs against our chair legs.

In the courtyard before us we watch herds of American tourists shuffle from sight to sight, their cameras slapping their bellies with each step.

For dinner we sit at a government-owned canteen and eat some miserable chicken fried in palm oil. We notice all the cutlery is engraved with “Comair,” the former airline. Is this where all the metal airline silverware went after 9/11? To Cuban canteens?

There is no toilet paper anywhere. There are no toilet seats. The plumbing in general is questionable. It’s helpful to have Cuban pesos (as opposed to CUCs) for tipping the bathroom attendants, though what service these women provide I’m not entirely sure.

Up next: Béisbol, a Cuban Pastime.

Vignettes from Budapest

Budapest, Hungary. 

It’s becoming somewhat of a joke among my friends that I always tag along on other people’s family vacations. A few Christmases ago I joined my cousin Mariana to visit her Aussie dad on Kangaroo Island. In January I sailed to Cuba with my friend Marina and her dad. Now for the second consecutive year I’ve crashed my friend Fireball’s mother-daughter reunion.

Fireball’s mom has one of those enviable passports with every shape and color stamped in it and extra pages routinely sewn in. As an award-winning art director and production designer in the film industry, she has scouted and worked pretty much everywhere – most recently on the majestic Kazakh steppe and the mosquito-riddled coasts of Malaysia (she prefers the steppe). This year her work brought her to Budapest for the second season of the Netflix-original series “Marco Polo”. So when Fireball’s med school spring break popped up on the calendar, off we went.

Normally when Fireball and I travel together, disaster ensues. In Brussels we overslept and missed our train to Paris, resulting in a costly slap on the wrist from the ticket agent. In Barcelona we got mugged and Fireball’s finger got smashed (four years on, it’s still noticeably chunkier than its neighbors). Last year in Bukit Indah, Malaysia, we nearly suffocated from what we thought was a fire, but was really just a poisonous mosquito bomb.

Budapest was a whole new beast, the furry, naughty sort of beast, like a satyr who lures you in for a cocktail and a friendly screw. We soaked our livers in pálinka, sweet sweet pálinka, in flavors like pear and poppyseed. We soaked our bodies in thermal baths surrounded by sumptuous, butter-colored architecture while old men scooted their pawns and rooks across swim-up chess tables. We cooed over sweet little porcelain critters in the hallowed halls of Herend. From our apartment window we spied on the kitchen at the Astoria hotel and laughed when a chef dipped his finger into the soup. At a café-cum-florist, a cappuccino arrived with a pretty pansy blossom on the coffee spoon. At night we fell headlong down the rabbit hole of the city’s “ruin pubs” – bars that that have popped up in abandoned mansions like psychedelic mushrooms. We were two little Alices and Budapest was our big beautiful Wonderland. After a week I flew back to America exhausted and coughing with the first tickle of bronchitis, and yet somehow dissatisfied. I was still hungry for more Hungary.

Practical Information:

Széchenyi Thermal Bath – Gorgeous Neo-baroque bath house with myriad options for soaking, sweating, swimming, and swilling pálinka.

Café Kör – Whopping portions of Hungarian soul food, like foie gras and toast served with blueberry jam, and schnitzels the size of doormats

Boutiq’ Bar  High class cocktails served in a sexy, velvety venue reminiscent of Paris’ Experimental Cocktail Club

Szimpla Kert  The grand dame of ruin pubs, a choose-your-own-adventure of chilled-out sitting rooms and frenetic dance floors

Centrál Kávéház – Elegant coffee house and restaurant in the Viennese style, with high-ceilings and picture-perfect desserts

Ruben Étterem – Neighborhood favorite dishing up high-brow cuisine at low-brow prices, like heaping plates of crispy roasted duck with juniper berry braised cabbage for just $8 USD a pop

 

Cuba Customs

Marina Hemingway, Cuba.

As we sailed into Marina Hemingway we scoped out the scene. Green palm trees. A petrol station with the outline of Cuba plastered on the side. A derelict building – or perhaps just an unfinished project – spray-painted with a portrait of Che. You know the one, with his brow furrowed and his hair flowing out from beneath a military beret.

This would be the first of many, many Che portraits we’d see throughout our trip to Cuba. His image was plastered on everything from water towers to building facades to sidewalks. Portraits of Che are to Cuba what pharmaceutical ads are to America. Evidently Cubans don’t need billboards touting the next cure for male pattern baldness or erectile dysfunction. Why would they? They’ve got Che always looming over them, like a hirsute, virile god sent to inspire machismo and nationalism. And that goes a lot farther than a little white pill.

We sailed into the harbor, and by sail I really mean under sail power, not under motor power which would have been the more appropriate option for navigating a 41-foot boat into an immovable, concrete marina. Our engine had been on the fritz from the outset, causing a five-day delay in our departure from Palm Beach while we waited on a replacement part to arrive. You can bet our captain was furious at the bloody machine that he had just spent so much bloody time trying to fix. “Humans were better off without all this technology,” he would growl at no one in particular.

Fearing the worst, we took down our main sail but left our jib up. Then we ever so cautiously eased into the Marina. Our navigator Toots took the helm and barked orders to hop like a bunny and get the fucking fenders ready, as our engine sputtered in and out of life.

(Toots and the Captain have been buddies for almost thirsty years, ever since a rainy day in 1985 when they bumped into each other diving in the same dumpster. They bonded over boats and a love of repurposing other people’s trash.

Toots for his part is a member of the invitation-only Storm Trysail Club, reserved for “expert offshore sailors who have experienced storm conditions and are capable of commanding a sailing vessel in such conditions,” i.e. when you need to hoist a storm trysail. I would imagine it’s a group of salty old codgers with poor manners and a terrific tolerance for rum Just a hunch.)

Three guards – two men and one woman – awaited us on shore. The men were self-serious and wore green fatigues and greased-back black hair. The woman had also slicked back her hair into a demure bun, and wore a button-down blouse, short skirt, medium black heels, and intricately laced panty hose. After we had tied up and wedged all of our fenders between the hull and the abrasive walls, we invited the Guarda Frontera aboard. The men swung their legs over the safety lines with ease, but the woman gingerly stepped onto the boat, her limbs visibly trembling, as if she thought the vessel might slip out from under her. She admitted that this was her first week on the job and that she was scared of boats. My first thought was that she should probably get another job. My second thought was that this was probably her only option.

The officers made their way down the stairwell into the cabin and crowded in around the table. They took each of our passports and began meticulously copying down all of our details in long hand. Not a digital device in sight. Then they turned to the Captain and asked for all the pertinent information about Madame X: her length, the year she was built, her engine model. They spent even more energy scrutinizing the specs of Madame X’s tender, a little inflatable dinghy, or “dinky” as the officers called it. (Over time we would learn how neurotic the Guarda Frontera can be about “dinkies,” but more on this in a future post.)

Another officer led a drug dog aboard – a sweet little springer spaniel named Dina – and we were all instantly smitten. Dina didn’t find anything interesting on board but she did get a belly rub from each member of the crew.

Everything was going swimmingly until one of the officers – the nasty one who chucked his plastic cigarette wrapper into the water – spotted Toots filming the guards surreptitiously from his iPad that he had positioned on the chart table. In normal life, Toots works as a sailing photographer and videographer, but his documentation of Cuba was primarily for posterity’s sake. For a different visual angle, Toots had asked me to take his camcorder and film the guards from my perch at the top of the stairs. When the officer realized what was going on, Toots nobly took the fall for the both of us.

I tried to convey to the officers that the video was purely a souvenir, for recuerdo. But they insisted on taking Toots ashore for questioning. Marina, the Captain and I waited on the boat patting Dina the drug dog and pondering how we would break Toots out of a Cuban prison. After about ten minutes, Toots emerged with a broad smile. He gave all the officers a hearty handshake and told us it was all a misunderstanding and that he would be happy to delete the files if that would appease them.

Back on board the guards distributed visas stamped with our entry date and we slipped them into our passports. We were told they would be removed when we left the country for good.

After we cleared immigration, we were directed towards our slip, wedged in between boats from the U.S., Sweden, Ireland, and elsewhere. Then the customs agents came aboard, and the mood shifted dramatically. Where the Guarda Frontera officers were severe, the custom agents were downright schmoozy. I think we even poured a few rum drinks. As a show of hospitality, we offered them nips of Whiskey, cans of Coca Cola, and bottles of Aspirin. (The wanton spread of Capitalism!) When one of the agents intimated that he might prefer something a tad more pecuniary, the Captain slapped him jovially on the back and said “You know we would like to but it is against our regulations, you understand.” The only thing missing was a wink and an “old chap.”

Before we left for Cuba, the Captain had promised “no bribes. We have done this too many times!” We were off to a good start.

Next up: Exploring Havana

Dunkin’ with Cap’n Duncan: A visit to the One and Only Dunkin’ Donuts Diner

Before we could embark on our great voyage to Cuba, first we had to provision the ship. To hammer out our grocery list, Cap’n Dunc’ took us to (where else) Dunkin’ Donuts, but not just any old Dunkin’ Donuts. Opened in 1962 the ‘World Famous Lake Park Dunkin’ Diner” is the last remaining full-service restaurant in all the land. The menu features the typical fried-to-order diner fare of eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, and the less expected fish and grits, served with a wedge of lemon and a dollop of butter. We tucked into a booth and drank bottomless mugs of coffee as we discussed the merits of Laughing Cow cheese (the verdict: needs no refrigeration and tastes great on spaghetti) and other non-perishable foods items (canned chicken, canned sardines, canned corn beef, vodka nips – for bribing and bartering). Lining our bellies with a good’n’greasy meal was the perfect sendoff for our sail.

Practical Info:

Dunkin’ Diner, 301 Federal Hwy, Lake Park, FL 33403

 

Sailing to Cuba

Palm Beach, FL, to Marina Hemingway, Cuba.

Sailing from Palm Beach to Marina Hemingway took roughly 40 hours, and rough hours they were, though we wouldn’t have known it from the outset. Our evening departure began smoothly with a motor sail along the Florida coast. As we passed the Keys, the seas started to build into giant, veiny waves. The swells heaved at us, sloshing Madame X like a single sock in an enormous washing machine. At midnight I joined “Sir” for the 12am to 4am shift and nearly pissed myself with fear. Pissing myself wasn’t an option, swaddled as I was in my sailing bibs – vanity prevents me from ever buying the proper, roomier size of any athletic gear. So I held my bladder and steered a terrifying course, dead downwind with sails wing-on-wing.

With each wave, the wheel yanked to windward, snapping the jib across the deck. Sir would blurt out a God damnit with every snap, bemoaning the beating of his poor jib sail. Then the force would swing back to leeward and the bow would dip sharply, flirting with an accidental gybe. I glued my eyes to the bow, hoping it would steady my steering. The waves were hypnotic, and occasionally I’d hallucinate whales and ships and sea monsters riding them. It reminded me of driving alone on country roads at night and seeing the trees morph into giant demonic rabbits. Very disorienting.

Excepting the insane waves, the wind was generally favorable. At one point our Garmin GPS recorded us cruising at 13.3 knots, presumably while we were surfing one of those giant rollers. I was too scared to look at them dead on. When the moon came out the waters lit up like molten silver. For a fleeting moment I forced myself to relax and commit the beauty to memory. The moon! The spray! The menacing waves! Then before I knew it my shoulders would hike back up around my ears and the fear would root itself in my chest. When Sir offered to take over the helm, I nearly collapsed from gratitude, my body visibly convulsing from stiff-arming the wheel.

When I wasn’t on watch, I lay in my bunk listening. Every wave that pummeled the hull, every line that thrashed on deck sent a ripple of noise through the cabin. It felt like the inside of a drum. When at one point a giant BOOM shuddered through the hull – followed by a flurry of expletives from on deck – I thought, Whelp, That’s it. We’ll be sleeping with the fishes any time now. Further inspection revealed that the sound came from a busted boomvang, the result of an accidental gybe. Thankfully we had a defender on the boom to protect crew from certain decapitation in such an event, so the vang was our only casualty.

The lumpy outline of Cuba finally materialized in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We unfurled our Cuban flag from the starboard stay, careful to align the single point of the star towards the sky. By afternoon we were motoring around the concrete channels of Marina Hemingway. Men in green army fatigues were already waiting for us on shore.

I scribbled in my diary, Cuba is already shaping up to be a very strange place

Next up: Surviving Immigration/Customs