Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cape Town - Dawn

6am Cape Town. 9pm Seattle. It is dawn on the morning after the big family/reunion aka meet-my-brother’s-friends party. I am lying on a foam mattress on the floor under the dark yellow chandelier listening to the distant song of the muezzin calling the devout to prayer. It quavers, rises and falls from the loudspeaker on the mosque a few blocks away in the Malay Quarter. Somewhere, 60 dirty glasses and 20 bottles of bubbly are waiting to be cleaned up but I can’t even make tea because the sound echoes and amplifies in this house of stone and tiel where a snorer, some runners, the children and Mum are sleeping.

Last night we received a text that my luggage has been found and should arrive at CPT from LHR on a 9.55am flight. This is great news as its possible that I will have some clothing choices other than the kundalini harem pants which I have slept in and worn for the past 24 hours (at least until a brief and expensive visit to a local boutique 1 hour before the party. I hope to pass on that bill to British Air).

Frost is complaining because the turquoise skinny jeans I bought him have buttons at the fly and that is not his kind of thing. He is sleeping in them too because he has no underwear or alternatives.

My brother lives like a happy bachelor. His condo (not a condo really but a 100+ year old terrace house overlooking Cape Town) has no washing utilities - no machine, line or anything. There is a kitchen which is minimally equipped (he has just moved in). He takes the laundry out to a service which launders and folds. The stay-down feature on toaster does not work - so you have to stand by it holding down button until it reaches the desired level of toastedness.

Staying here, we have to negotiate three bunches of keys to various doors, gates and grilles. The garage door has a metal security gate as well and the rear has gates and doors as well. As I listen to the sounds of the pre-dawn dark, there are car sounds interspersed with metal clangs as people leave by their metal gates talking loudly on their cells. These are not the kind of gates and keys we have in Seattle - which are mostly to Yales and deadbolts. They are big chrome keys which go into keyholes you can see through. They turn locks with a satisfying clunk.

Friday, June 27, 2014

At Heathrow

We have made it to Heathrow and checked into an airport hotel.  Frost is asleep (he did not sleep much on the flight) and Wren is perky as a robin. Wren does not like the taste of English tap water. He says that the minerals have gotten in it.  He also feels that the water is bluer here (because the Sofitel water is blue in their a sparkling white tub while at home ours appears yellowish).  

I watched much of The Wolf of Wall Street and enjoyed it but finally fell asleep.  I also watched the first two episodes of the Season 4 of Game of Thrones because I could not resist seeing Joffrey dying.  He was such a prick that it was very satisfying even at 2am at 30 000 feet with a numb butt and Frost's head in my ribs. 

The meal options have not worked out well.  My Vegan meal was okay.  Apparently vegans are uber-healthy as I got no desert except pineapple in juice, water and no crackers.  The main meal was grilled eggplant in pasta sauce with something that looked like tahini on it.   There were many Hindis on the plane and the cabin crew were puzzled that Frost was getting a Hindu meal.  They checked twice.  Unfortunately, I did not know that I had to specifiy Hindu VEGETARIAN so Frost (a vegetarian) had to avoid the chicken and sauce and ate only dal and rice.  He also avoided some strange desert like milk powder cakes floating in milk sauce.   Wren's dinner was meat balls and spaghetti with red-jello which he liked.  I ate Wren's refrigerated bread-roll with synthetic margarine that smelled of petrochemicals.   

The long-haul BA jets we were on was a 777 but it had a much updated in-flight entertainment system compared to others we've flown.  There are many many movie options, a whole menu of international indie films, best of british film festivals and tons of HBO and other 'catch up' TV.  I brought along my Bose noise-cancelling headphones and honestly, I couldn't tell I was on a plane it was so quiet and smooth.

We will head back to T5 within the hour.  Here is Wren's first journal entry:


The next flight is a bit longer but we are feeling fine and hope our in-flight entertainment is as good.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Trouble with Whole Foods AND the Trouble with Books

Guest Post by Granny Anne.

 I love going to Whole Foods when I am in Seattle. We don’t have anything quite like it in Australia – yet. There are many reasons that visits there are enjoyable. Firstly they arrange fresh food, flowers, wine, cheeses,  - everthing so well. I am sure there is a special department for it that has worked out the aesthetics of presentation. The Carrots are sorted just so – as to blend in with the green capsicums next to them – and so it goes on. There is a feel-good about the whole shopping trip. The meat and fish is graded for sustainable and ethical farming. You almost know the name of the top level of chicken you buy. These lucky chickens are raised with lots of space, with easy access to outside, with nesting material to scratch in and be a natural chicken. When they are killed, they are not moved more than a kilometer or two and they are never held upside down. You only have to know about the life of an average chicken to know that this would be a paradise for a modern chicken. So you can feel good – almost good about eating meat or fish from Whole Foods.

But – there are complications – first you buy too much – too much looks so good and you are sure it will be consumed at home. This leads to waste. I have bought a book on the waste in America – ‘American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food’ by J. Blood. I have been trying to get my grandchildren to finish their food. This does not seem to be a problem when there is a cookie there but the main course of ‘good’ food often is a struggle.
Secondly, after you leave WholeFoods with your trolley almost full there are always one or two people begging outside. They stand in the cold and rain with placards detailing their sad situations. Sometimes they offer a poem for you to buy. This is coming down to earth fast.

We have too much food in our fridges and too many books in our houses. I love going to Third Place Books when I am in Seattle.
Vios Café at Third Place on Urbanspoon
Vios at Third Place
The coffee shop, Vios,  is a treat.  The plate of dips is exceptional and the Kopanisti dip is good enough for a special trip.  The kids enjoy the kebabs and they also have delicious seasonal baked goods which they make on site as well as Italian gelati which we enjoy in summer.

When you come in, offer the Third Place store a chance buy some of your second hand books and they will give you a discount. At least they used to buy lots, but this time they hardly took any. I am sure Amazon is affecting them. Their stocks are high and the second hand books sell so cheaply – most are under $10. I am going home with about 15 new books in my bags.

Shannon gives away books. The latest phenomenon is the Little Free Libraries that have sprung up since I was last here. take a book and leave a book. One is in Shannon’s street and each one is decorated differently. This is a wonderful idea and I hope that it eventually finds its way Down Under - which is where I am going, leaving in two hours.

By Anne Chappel

Monday, March 3, 2014

Seattle’s Winter Games February 2014

I have travelled from the height of Adelaide’s summer to winter time in Seattle. Just before I left Adelaide we had a week of a ‘rolling heat wave’ that broke local records.  One day the temperature reached 46 degrees in Adelaide (114 F). The garden plants that we did not cover with shade cloth were burnt. We have lost gum trees that we had hoped, being ‘native’, would endure.

Now to I have arrived in Seattle. The days are still short, and gentle rain falls most days. The odd sunny day is greeted with enthusiasm by all. The kids rush out to get in a few minutes of leaping on the trampoline. Everyone feels spring is almost here. The early crocuses are budding and the trees show a hint of colour. But its mostly a case of promises at this stage – Shannon says freezing spells are still likely.

Even in winter Seattle life goes on. Soon after arriving Frost went off to his ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ practice and match. This involved an hour of practice and 90 minutes of competition on a sodden grass field at 5pm at night. The cold rain was falling gently and Frost went off in a light shirt to do battle with the Frisbee. I was wearing two layers of wool and a wool coat. While Frost practiced, Shannon and I escaped into the Elliot Bay BookCompany,
which appeared to be a haven for many that winter night. An hour later we went to watch Frost and found that the coach had cancelled due to the continuing rain, short teams, and strong winds. We could take Frost home. Frost was not complaining about the cold. I think that, like Josh, he wears short sleeves throughout the year.

Tonight Frost played another match in the pouring rain. He said afterwards that, 'he had played the best that he could without fingers'. It was so cold he could not feel his fingers. 

Frost and Wren are now into skiing. Its just over an hour to the Summit at Snoqualmie we have been there twice in my time here. The snow is deep now and over two metres thick beside the road. Wren is doing weekly lessons and Shannon has been joining him to allay his anxieties. Wren’s main concerns have been around the chair lift – getting on and off. I think he has too much imagination.

Coming down the mountain on the green slopes – even the blue runs - have been no problem for Wren: he is an excellent snow-plougher and steady on his feet.   

Frost and Wren love board games and Shannon had bought Monopoly Empire. It’s more enjoyable than the classic Monopoly for two main reasons: Games mostly only last a few minutes, and secondly the lead can change hands many times. Wren has particularly enjoyed playing this. I taught Wren and Frost the card game called ‘Scum’ which Sandy Shewell had taught us. It’s a lot of fun – played with up to 8 people. Wren liked being the 'King' but was concerned about moving down to ‘Scum’ as is one’s lot sooner or later.

Wren and Frost love reading. Wren still has reading time before bed time. Josh is reading him Harry Potter: book six: The Half Blood Prince. Wren’s reading-to-himself favourites have been the ‘Practical guide to Fairies’ and the Tashi series.
He has laughed mightily over the Elephant and Piggie booksby Mo Willem.

In Seattle’s winter you have to try to fill inside time without resorting to computer games - which are there to tempt. Frost is very good playing with Wren, who follows him round faithfully. Whatever Frost does, Wren is sure to follow. This morning Wren suggested a game of chess after our morning mushroom crepes and Frost was good to comply. 

Tonight we will be attending an Oscar appreciation party – for tonight the Oscars are being awarded. This is a performance I am usually unaware of in Australia. I have seen two of the films on the short list – Gravity and Captain Phillips. Both I watched on the 12 hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco.

Three more days before I take the long journey home to Adelaide, where we all long for cool days and rain.
by Granny Anne

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


We've been back at school a few weeks now and everyone has found their rhythm again.  Frost has a lot going on - he's started drama after school and is performing as An Alien who speaks English.  In the class he is one of three boys.  Frost is also playing Ultimate Frisbee and tennis lessons.  The focus on sports is because, since he is taking Band and Japanese at school he has to prove his eligibility to skip PE by doing 60 hours of extra-curricular sports.

Wren has been doing skiing.  We are still in a snow-drought in the NW but the kids enjoyed their lesson.  It was very low key and a great first day on the snow for Wren.  I sat in the lodge and chatted.

Taking a break with the Powder Pigs


Getting a tow up the slope with Jason
I have also been busy.  I have taken an art class on botanical drawing which I was given for Christmas.  I was interested in how precise botanical illustration is expected to be - measurement and accuracy of perspective and consistent visual plane were our first lessons.  We had to draw on tracing paper to transfer a 'good' copy of our sketch to the quality paper so as not to mess the surface.  Here is my first transfer and the subject - an artichoke.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The end of hamstervana

Yesterday, we moved from our delightful West End vacation house to the strip of 7 Mile Beach. Before the move, we enjoyed a morning snorkel in the remarkably clear waters off Cemetery Beach.  It was so calm that even Wren snorkeled.  He wore his new snorkel-vest which allowed him to float, supported, with his face in the water.  He complained a lot the first time about the water being so salty but we still managed to go out far enough to enjoy schools of blue tang, sergeant-majors and wrasse.  As soon as he reached the beach he wanted to go out again.  I was very happy that he snorkeled out in the sea.

Bye bye wonderful house.  Till next time.
Bye bye prickly plants.
I had the best food of the trip so far yesterday morning.  It was the caribbean breakfast in the hot-box at the supermarket.  There were scrambled eggs, spicy, with reef fish mixed in, chicken curry and a local stewed green much like collard greens.  DELICIOUS.  I think I will have a vegetable juice cleanse when I return to adjust after the fried-everything.

My best meal on Grand Cayman - supermarket hot box melange
of curried vegetables, scrambled egg and fish and chicken stew.  Delicious!!!
The hotel room is actually nicer than I feared but we are not out in the wonderful heat, we can't see the sea unless we walk down to the beach and there is not quiet private beach.  This is not ideal.  The pool is good and the kids and Josh are enjoying the amenity of a hotel - the restaurant, the pool, hot-tub and hammocks.  I am not convinced.  I feel like a newly caged hamster trapped from the wild... okay, not the wild, but the place where hamsters roamed free without predation: hamstervana.

The new view.

This is what the boys are doing.
However, I should not give you too dour a view of the hotel.  It is right next to the beach with fair waves good for boogie boarding today.  This is because we are in a cold-snap (aka cold weather system sitting over the Caribbean).  That means it is 75 degrees and overcast with a wind.  It is still beautiful just in a 'one of the masses' on-a-gorgeous-beach kinda way.

Looking out to sea at dinner time last night.  I realize that there are no people
in sight and this is because it is not sunny.  Everyone here just wants
sun so as the evening approaches they go inside to drink and eat fried food or
spend $300 for dinner to AVOID eating fried food.  

The boys.
The main things remaining on our list are:
The Mexico: USA finals
Boogie boarding on the beach.
Drinking cuban coffee at the cigar bar.
Finding something palatable to eat today that isn't fried chips, fish, rice, fritters with one slice of old iceberg lettuce on it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Rainy Day

Rain squalls obscure the horizon - from our deck battened down for rain.
Today was our last day at our perfect Nautilus vacation home.  Tomorrow, we move to the heart of 7 mile beach hotel district for two nights.  The idea is to have a place with a pool for a while but I am feeling deep regret that we didn't just choose to stay here the whole time.  It is so bloody perfect and I am full of dread at having all four of us in a studio apartment (aka, one big room).

Although it rained, Frost and I went snorkeling from our house to the public beach.  We saw many fish on our swim and also found a small toy turtle on the bottom of the sea.  Although it was raining, the visibility was incredible.  Far better than it was earlier in the week when the sand was churned up making the near-shore water milky.  While we swam a magnificent frigatebird rode the currents overhead, its long tail feathers pressed together.

Heritage Kitchen for lunch.
For lunch, I ate coconut grouper at the Heritage Kitchen beach shack which sells local reef fish caribbean style.  After serving my fish and Wren's soda, the chef and her friends sat at another table under the coconut fronded shelter and played a card game while smoking cigarettes.  The rain washed over the sea and gave it a smoothed out appearance.  In the distance, beyond the lee of the houses and palms on the shore - the water was rippled by wind but we were perfectly protected.

Coconut Grouper with a fritter and salad.  The coconut was delicious over
fried onions.
I went for another evening snorkel and found a nice sized conch shell with lovely pink color.

The sea off the deck has fabulous fish.  We saw a porcupine fish just off the rocks.
Snorkeling off the deck - the conch shell.

Frost and I went on a reconnoitre to see what our 7-mile beach accommodation is nice.  The building seems fine (aka Best Western style) and the pool has a hot tub, but the beach was rough and tiny and a 1/10 compared to where we are now.  I am much happier off "the strip".  We are going to have to get out and about.  Frost is interested in the waves - thinking he can boogie board.

A part of our fish list:
Blue Tang
Ocean surgeonfish
Yellow damselfish
Saergent major
Harlequin Bass
Lantern Bass
Smallmouth grunts (schools)
Flat needlefish
Slippery Dick
Clown Wrasse
Porcupine Fish
Southern Stingray

Friday, January 17, 2014

Flowers in the Sea

Seven mile beach is remarkably clean.  There's no litter and no hawkers.  At our end its just a bare naked beach with houses facing up against it, palms, sea-grape and some tall windswept barrier trees at public access to the shore, so we were confused when we kept finding fake flowers in the sea.

I mean, like finding them often.

It went like this.  You are swimming and suddenly you see something bright in the water by you.  You snag it from the waves and find its a plastic tiger lily or a blue petal or a pink begonia.  I started to make a collection.

Selfie with found flowers
My first theory was that they are falling off tourists' beach hats and sarongs but I never saw women festooned with fake flowers.  Not even one.  The second theory was that the locals had window boxes of fake flowers because the sea spray made it hard to grow real ones but I never spotted a window-box among the fronds of bouganvillea, red trumpets and orchids.

I wondered if it might be funerals.  Growing up in South Africa it was not uncommon to find marigolds or marigold garlands floating in the sea along the walking (not swimming) beaches.  We'd also find small red clay pots which we were told not to touch because they were from Hindu funerals.  It didn't seem likely that these were from Grand Cayman Hindus but it turns out I was getting close.  Here is the source of the flowers:

It seems that in the early days of Cayman settlement, people felt it was best to live inland.  They wanted the arable soil and to be safe from hurricanes and wild seas.  The beach was considered a risky place to live so all the island cemeteries were located on the shoreline, where they remain.  We are staying near Cemetery Beach CEMETERY and that is where the flowers originate.

A Day with the Fauna and Flora

This morning was rainy and cool so we went East to the Mastic Trail.  Josh likes goals so he had written a list which included our hopes for the day.  This is the result:

  1. Hike Mastic Trail
  2. See Cayman Parrot
  3. Visit Botanical Park
  4. See Blue Iguanas
  5. Visit East End
In addition, we saw:
  1. Blue throated anole
  2. Hickatee (freshwater turtles)
  3. Wood slave (Jamaican gecko)
  4. Racer, Black snake
  5. A rat
  6. Agouti
  7. A manchineel tree
Mastic Trail
The Mastic Trail is cut into the inland forest - a mixed zone of mangroves, royal palm, acacia-like scrub and taller tropical trees.  We went to the trail the day after a torrential downpour so we were only able to make it about a quarter of the way before finding the trail flooded with about 8 inches of water.  We would have needed galoshes.

While on the trail we saw 1 Rat.  I think it was an invasive Norwegian Rat of the ratus type we are trying to kill at home.

While walking the trail I recorded the song of a persistent bananaquit on my iPhone.  I played it back and managed to summon some bananaquits.  Their calls attracted a northern flicker, a cuban bullfinch, a honeyeater and various small warblers.  I was overwhelmed by my trick.  Here is the call:

The Manchineel Tree
Also on the trail we saw warnings about toxic plants: the manchineel tree, the maiden plum and the lady hair being chief among them.  Standing in a leafy forest with kids, the questions of identification can seem overwhelming so Josh just told the kids "don't touch ANY plants".  This is hard when hiking past muddy trenches and caused Wren a lot of anxiety.  He kept saying "oh, I touched that plant, will I be alright?"
"Have I touched a plant?
How long will it take to know?"
The one I was interested to see is the manchineel tree - one of the most toxic trees on earth.  It secretes some kind of sap which is caustic to skin and causes blisters.  We found one in the botanic park but I only noticed because of the big red sign.

We did identify many maiden hair on the Mastic Trail.  This plant's green leaves cause black blisters, welts and rashes that last up to two weeks!

Maiden PLUM not Lady Hair...  (need to update the picture caption)
Cayman Parrots
We stopped to investigate a loud bird and chanced upon a pair of 'good bird' Cayman Parrots in a jacaranda tree by the road.  The say and looked back at us until we tired of them and drove off.  We all managed to see them through binoculars.  I saw another at the Botanical Park and heard many calling and flying past.

The agouti is a large rodent from Central America which was established by early settlers for meat.  Arden Bodden told us the story of the first agouti.  A settler brought them in to breed and had them in a cage.  One escaped as he was coming to feed them and he tried to catch it,  but could not.  Realizing he couldn't breed them with only one he just let the other one go too.  Now they are called Cayman 'rabbit' and hunted for meat.  They are shy but not uncommon.  We saw one at a distance and the kids crept up and saw it again.  They loved the agouti.

Can you see the shy agouti?  It looked like a blend between a
duiker and a dassie to me. It is just to the left of the path in the middle distance.
A Blue Iguana and a Blue Anole
We are talking about getting a lizard as a pet.  Everyone is enjoying the lizards and geckos and iguana all about us.  If I were to 'discover' Grand Cayman today I would not call it los Tortugas (as Columbus is reputed to have done due to the abundance of turtles) but Los Iguanos.

Today, Josh spotted a blue anole.  He was a splendidly bright blue and was kind enough to perform by inflating his neck pouch for us.  You can't quite see that in the picture, but you can get the idea.  Also, see how his color is similar to the leaves.  Apparently they can change color a bit like a chameleon to blend in.
Blue anole at the bird sanctuary
Of course, the stars of the show were the indigenous blue iguana which are being bred and released in the Botanical Park program. We saw three in the gardens.  They are quite a big deal around here and you can see that this tourist was eager to get a good shot.

A blue iguana on the color-garden loop

A tourist getting a close up while Wren kneels in an odd way.
I love this picture.  Its very funny.

We saw no sign of aggression except from the iguana who was waiting by
the picnic tables.  When Wren sat at the table he rushed up as if to get food.

I told them to get back but they crept up on the iguana.  They are
generally lazy things wanting only to lie undisturbed in the sun.

This one was a bit insistent.  He was lying on the hot bricks but grew excited
a bit later.  You can see how big he is in this picture.
Black Snake
We also saw three racer snakes (Black Snakes).  They are harmless and like to lie on the path.  We passed an Australian woman who was quite scared of them but when I stamped this one cleared off the path in a hurry.

It is now quite late and I realize this has been a survey of animals rather than hugely informative.  Still, it was a day full of animals and the kids loved the Botanical Gardens, fighting with fallen palm fronds they found on the path.  Both were impressed by the signs about the risk of falling coconuts - Frost says it is a well-known fact that more people are killed by coconuts than by sharks.  He adds that it is also well known that more people are killed by bovine herd animals than sharks and coconuts combined.  I checked the cow claim and it seems that on average 1 human being is killed each year by a shark in the US while 22 people die from coconut strikes (about 150 annually worldwide).  In an average year about 20 people in the US die from deliberate cow attacks.

Be afraid, people.  Be very afraid of cows and coconuts.
"Don't do it Frost!  There are coconuts!!!"  yelled Wren.

The kids asked me to photograph this warning.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Conk Man

We have come across three traditional foods on Grand Cayman: turtle, conch and jerk chicken.  Today, we learned about conch.  Over here they pronounce the name of the large sea mollusk (strombus gigas) 'conk' not conch.  The shells are everywhere.  Earlier, I'd posted about seeing drifts of them at Barkers Point but they are all around town.  Every restaurant has conch on the menu.  There are conch burgers, conch chowder, conch cerviche, cracked conch with pickled fennel....

A conch I picked up in the sand at Barkers.
A drift of conch shells
Conch shells are ubiquitous.  There are roadside stands advertising varnished conch shells for $10.  Every house has a few of them outside - for Christmas they are put up in rows as decoration.  Some of the shells are old and faded white but locals paint them pink again.  Down the road from us we saw a house in which conch shells had been cemented into a wall and painted and a sign for conch horns and shells.  I asked a passing local why the shells all had a hole in the top and she said "You should ask Eden, he's the conch man".

The conch wall.  Wren waits to find out about a conch horn.

A lovely conch shell outside Eden's
Eden was sitting outside his house smoking and drinking a beer.  Old fishing nets and floats snagged the branches of a nearby tree and a radio played from a gazebo where a game of dominos lay, unstarted.  A life sized plastic marlin stuck its head out from a sea grape.  He is a man in his early 60s with a rich Cayman accent.  Seeing us talking about conch, he came over and explained that he had to make a hole in the top of the shell because it was the easiest way to cut the muscle and remove the flesh of the snail to eat. 

I found this reference to the Queen Conch harvest on the site for the Cayman Department of the Environment, explaining that the measured population declined by 50% 1988-2006:

"The Queen Conch has been harvested for human consumption since prehistoric times.  It represents one of the most commercially exploited marine species in the Carribean.This has led to overfishing and depletion of most know shallow water stocks." 

There are limits on the catch and a closed season, but poaching and over-harvesting still occurs.  The large conch has a wide flange with bright pink color while a young conch is called a 'conch roller' because it has not yet grown the wide lip and so will roll in the surf.

Eden explained that the dives for conch in North Bay but that they are now more scarce.  That said, he is still selling conch horns - a traditional horn that makes a loud noise and remains an accepted noise maker for a small craft under US Coast Guard regulations!  He went inside and returned with a conch horn, giving us a demonstration of how to blow it.

Wren IMMEDIATELY wanted one and tonight we returned to pick it up.

Wren, his conch horn and Eden - the maker

Wren is thrilled with his conch horn.  He has learned to blow it and is very careful to keep it safe. Eden gave Frost a conch shell (with a hole) that was eaten.  He is also pleased with it but unsure that US Customs will allow us to return to the US with it.   This is a valid concern since conch are Conch are protected under the Endangered Species (Trade & Transport) Law.  I have checked and you are allowed to bring them in from Cayman.  I am not sure what Wren will do if we are not!

Here is a very interesting local article on the eating and endangered status of the conch.