Monday, August 10, 2015

The View from Tangier

Since moving to Morocco last month, we have spent many hours contemplating the view from our third-floor perch. White storks often fly above the clay-tiled roofs, sometimes landing on nearby television antennas, where they exhibit a remarkable sense of balance in the fickle winds.

Like some fortunate humans, they are migrants, able to cross between Europe and Africa at will.

According to James Edward Budgett-Meakin, author of Land of the Moors: A Comprehensive Description (1901), “As a slayer of serpents the stork is held sacred, and if he fails to return any year to his accustomed haunt, some evil is feared.”

In The Land of an African Sultan: Travels in Morocco (1889), Walter B. Harris wrote this about storks:  “They are men, say the Moors, who have come from islands far away to the west, to see Morocco. Like all the world, they know there is no other land to compare to it, and so they even abandon their outward form of men to come and see it.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why I Haven't Quit My Day Job

Whenever I’m away from my desk, it seems that the world is determined to show me strange and beautiful things. An albino sea turtle, for one, gleaming like white gold beneath the blue water. And a brown booby, who nabbed a flying fish off a wave-crest as I watched from the kayak.

When a juvenile frigate bird tried to steal the booby’s fish away, I paddled over to offer support. The frigate fled, and then the booby enjoyed its meal, as well as (apparently) my company, eventually settling on this buoy to pose and preen.

A few days later, doubting my vision of the gilded turtle in the middle of copyediting a book about J. Alden Weir, the American Impressionist, I took the time for a quick search online (our family calls it, “consulting the oracle”). As it turns out, albino turtles, while uncommon, are not unheard of, although it’s more likely that the one I saw was leucistic. That’s one of my favorite things about the Web: what you might, in some less enlightened age, have been tempted to call hallucination can now be labeled as probable sighting.

Another of the fun things about the Web is that it brings nonstop news of success: the glad tidings of friends and acquaintances, as well as the exploits of impossibly lucky or talented humans who you will never meet.

On the other hand, if you are one of the untold millions striving to find a voice (and a paycheck), the continuous awareness of other folks’ book deals and movie options might leave you feeling like a chronic underachiever. At those moments, it can help to remember that the mere attempt to create carries its own rewards (sometimes long deferred, sometimes completely unfathomable).

Though it’s scant consolation, I try to remind myself that each rejection letter means that I now have one more reader than I did a minute ago. Not a satisfied reader, but hey, you can’t please everybody. The important thing—for my own sense of being a person among other people—is to keep plugging away. I don’t insist on becoming Meb Keflezighi every time I set out on a morning run, so why feel unhappy about not being Jim Harrison whenever I sit down at the keyboard?

The fact is that only a rare few get paid to play. The rest of us, as Gillian Welch sings, “do it anyway.”  Here are links for a handful of stories that found publication this spring, none of them in print, and none for pay . . .

• a few thoughts on aspirational flyfishing photography at Tail magazine

• tips for making the most of a trip to Mongolia at On the Fly magazine

• an update on our conservation work in Orvis News

• humor for proofreaders or mathematicians (your choice) at the Science Creative Quarterly

• and a brief meditation on zen and the art of nonrefundable airfares at We Said Go Travel.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Another 36 Hours in Lisbon

At first, Seth Sherwood’s recent guide to Portugal’s capital city left me feeling as if I’d missed out on something. After all, our family had enjoyed several days and nights there in December—without experiencing many of the author’s designated highlights. In fact, we only managed two: the riverside running path that passes through the grand Praça do Comércio, and the gallery at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga that contains Bosch’s mind-altering Temptations of Saint Anthony.

Upon further reflection, however, I wouldn’t have missed any of the treasures that we bumbled into during our walks around the city. Here’s an abbreviated version of our visit.

Friday / 4:00 p.m.
To get a good view of everything Lisbon has to offer, begin your visit at Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte. A miradouro is the Portuguese version of a scenic viewpoint, and Lisbon’s hills provide several great ones.

Friday / 8:00 p.m.
Our home base was a third-story walkup in the Alfama District, the oldest part of the city. There are many interesting-looking places to eat between the castle and the river, but after strolling up and down a few cobblestoned streets, we chose Bistrô Gato Pardo, at Rua de São Vicente 10. It’s an intimate and comfortable space, and each plate manages that rare achievement of disarming simplicity: beautiful to contemplate, wonderful to taste. We felt perfectly content to linger through a long dinner, two bottles of wine, dessert and coffee. Ask Mario and Werner to tell a few stories about the Sardine Festival (when the restaurant closes in the interests of self-preservation).

Saturday / 12:00 noon
After a morning run or walk, make your way to Portugalia’s cervejaria, a brewery turned beer hall at Rua São Caetano 4. Although the menu offers a number of the usual suspects, we recommend the house specialty: Bacalhau Bras (the half portion was enough for two of us). Its robust flavor of salt cod, potatoes, and olives is accompanied equally well by a glass of Bohemia or Imperial Branca.

Saturday / 2:00 p.m.
Confronted with a daunting list of worthwhile museums, we chose the one that seemed most emblematic of Lisbon itself: the tile museum. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Rua da Madre de Deus 4, is housed in a former convent whose sixteenth-century buildings provide a suitably meandering home for a wide-ranging collection. Although some taxi drivers may insist that the word azulejo comes from the Portuguese for “blue,” it more likely derives from the Arabic al zuleycha, which means “small polished stone.”

Saturday / 8:00 p.m.
Mini Bar Teatro, Rua António Maria Cardoso 58, is one of chef José Avillez’s five restaurants in Lisbon. We found the place on Friday, when it was already fully booked for dinner, and literally begged for a reservation for the following night. The food is inventive and showy, with foie gras masquerading as a Ferrero Rocher and a brilliant green sphere that transforms itself into a caiparinha in your mouth. The theater theme also extends to the traditionally liquid cocktails, which have names like Godot and Hairspray. After a few of these we laughed so hard that one of our party fell from a chair.

Sunday / 10:00 a.m.
By now you’ve probably tried at least a few of Lisbon’s many distinctive pastries, including the egg tarts known as pastéis de nata or, if you go directly to the source, pastéis de Belém. One of the city’s better versions is served at Versailles, an atmospheric café at Avenida Republica 15A. Although you’ll see locals happily standing and eating at the long counter, it’s worth waiting for a seat under the elegantly high ceiling.

Sunday / 1:00 p.m.
If you can’t leave Lisbon without at least a few souvenirs, then stop at A Arte da Terra, Rua Augusto Rosa 40. The shop is housed in the former stables of the city’s cathedral, just downhill from the Roman ruins, and the cobbled floor beneath your feet has been trod by both humans and horses for what has no doubt been donkeys of years. Individual displays of fine handicrafts are arranged in the stone mangers, and the retro tins of Portuguese sardines seem even more appealing when viewed beneath a centuries-old vault of brick.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The State of the Fishery

From the perspective of someone who has been obsessed with fish-catching since childhood, the week’s news was mixed. There were stories about efforts to reduce dynamite fishing, on the unintended consequences to fish populations of attempts to combat malaria, and on the use of satellites to identify seafood pirates.

The view from the kayak, however, was truly amazing. On Saturday morning, it looked like this (for comparison’s sake, that’s a size-12 Simms sandal on the right):

In Florida, these fish are called dolphin; on our home island of Aruba, dorado; but they are better known on menus by their Hawaiian name: mahi-mahi. 

Back in the mid-1980s—when I worked as the mate on a charter boat and moonlighted as a tropical-fish collector and commercial fisherman—we often caught dozens of dolphinfish a day, sometimes hundreds. I was certainly grateful for them at the time, with the precise level of that gratitude varying by the rate we received at the local fish house: usually between $0.79 and $1.39 per pound.

Even considering the greater worth of those Reagan-era dollars, such prices seem criminally low for a commodity as valuable as fresh fish. Which is why the good fortune I experienced Saturday occupies an entirely different range of the spectrum.

Though I release most of what I catch here on Aruba, I resolved to kill this dorado and honor its death. With wasabi and soy sauce, lime juice and cilantro, panko crumbs and curry paste.

When you only have one fish to clean, you have the luxury of using it all—much like dressing your own ducks or butchering your own deer. After skinning and fileting this fish, I saved the roe, the collar, and the head.

I enjoyed the roe pan-fried for breakfast, with stewed tomatoes from Sarah’s container garden, avocado, and toast. The collar was cooked in the Japanese izakaya style, with grated ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, and mirin. And the head, of course, became Singapore fish-head curry.

Most North Americans will never get to savor these dishes because they won’t be able to find the appropriate parts of the fish in the market. But what if the trend toward artisanal food spread to seafood providers, in the same way that craft beer and real bread can now be found from Vermont to Montana?

Even if the movement never makes it out of Brooklyn or Palo Alto, a few more fish-obsessed types might find it easier to both make a living and show respect for the creatures they pursue. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing . . .

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Is the Man

For some odd reason, it’s often easier to be grateful in the first week of January than in the third week. Today I’m grateful that the Web is like the Yellowstone in summer flood, roiling with debris, reaching high into the willows to reclaim the previous year’s (or decade’s) parched husks.

I wrote “Happy Is the Man” in 2004, while we were living in the Paradise Valley, and modeled the title character after an angler I met on Western New York’s Oak Orchard Creek. You can read the story on Big Sky Journal’s site, with photos by Ken Takata and Barry and Cathy Beck.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cheers from the past: A visit to Qingdao

In “The End of History Illusion,” Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson measured the “personalities, values, and preferences” of nearly 20,000 people from the ages of 18 to 68. All “believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Try as I might, I suspect that I likewise would’ve fallen neatly into this sample.

Ten years ago, I had never been to Mongolia or Aruba and couldn’t have imagined my current relationship to these two places. In fact, I spent most of my time editing math books and pitching travel articles! This post was originally sold to Rezoom, a relatively short-lived site designed for aging baby boomers . . . 

Cheers from Qingdao

Because we were never properly introduced, I called him “The Screamer.” Nobody else paid any attention to the guy, who stood facing the Yellow Sea, bellowing a full-throated challenge to the dawn. With his mouth closed, he would have been just another member of the early-morning crowd—the women in one-piece tank suits and bathing caps, the men in nylon briefs—most of them over 50 years old and exhibiting no concern with either the chilly October temperatures or the American obsession with body image. They fished, swam, jogged, played volleyball, practiced gymnastic routines. While he screamed. I’m sure there was a reason for all the shouting, but I couldn’t muster enough Mandarin to ask.

I hadn’t learned much beyond the basics before this trip, just the traveler’s bare minimum of nihao (hello), xiexie (thank you), and yingwen maidan (English menu). That’s probably insufficient for a visit to some of China’s so-called “second-tier” cities, but it seemed to work in Qingdao, the cheerful home of what might be China’s most widely recognized foreign export: Tsingtao Beer. Despite the current difference in spelling, the name of the city and the brand are the same. Literally translated, Qingdao signifies “green island,” although it also sounds suspiciously like a word meaning “to pour.” Fortunately for vacationers, both definitions apply.

Although Shanghai and Beijing capture most of China’s first-time visitors, a smaller city like Qingdao can provide a less overwhelming introduction to the mainland. Its history mirrors that of the other former concessions in China: colonized by Europeans (in this case, Germans), invaded by Japanese (twice), liberated first by Nationalists, then by Communists, and most recently, by Capitalists. There are no tourist destinations on the order of Tiananmen Square or the Bund, but the city does have a lively pedestrian market, a regional cuisine based on fresh seafood, a fine old temple that’s been converted into a museum of folk customs—and much better air. Our well-traveled, sometimes finicky family of four, including a 9-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, was never bored.

The most-quoted description of Qingdao goes something like this: “red roofs, green trees, blue sea, azure sky.” Not your typical jingle for an industrial city of 7 million, but stroll along Lu Xun Park’s seaside paths or hike to the top of Signal Hill and you will immediately recognize the aptness of this expression. 

There are still crowds, of course, but the density during our visit rarely surged past an entertaining level. I like watching people enjoy themselves—especially in China, where the faces are astonishingly varied and various: newlyweds posing for a photographer, formally attired in flawless white (except for the tennis shoes); grandmothers and grandsons, trousers rolled to the knee, netting crabs in tidepools; decorous old men airing their caged birds in a neighborhood square. As for the Screamer, who knows? Maybe he was really a cheerleader, practicing for 2008, when Qingdao hosted the sailing events for China’s first Olympic Games.

We stayed at the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel, for its strategic location—across the street from the No. 1 Beach. (From west to east, the city’s beaches are designated 6, 1, 2, and 3, in that order. The relatively quiet No. 2 became our family favorite.) We started each day with breakfast in the revolving restaurant on the 25th floor, then returned in the evening for foot massages, a few games of shuffleboard, or a bucket of balls at the indoor driving range.

Hotel restaurants in China can occasionally surprise you with good value and high quality. The Japanese restaurant at the Huiquan Dynasty served reasonably tasty sashimi, udon, and yakitori. Its Chinese counterpart, however, provided the sort of memories that will be forever accompanied by a rueful chuckle. The waitstaff alternated between staring and inattention. The dish we can’t forget was called “Laoshan vegetable,” after the famous nearby mountain. Intrigued by its spongy, almost fungal, texture, I made several inquiries regarding its source and preparation. All were in vain.

We enjoyed a much more satisfying feed at Chun He Lou (Spring Peace House), 146 Zhongshan Road. Although a plaque declared this “A Designated Unit for Foreign Tourists,” we noticed only one other obvious foreigner in the crowded, second-floor dining rooms. The house specialties included crispy chicken, crab with ginger and scallions, three-flavored dumplings, and chrysanthemum leaves with garlic.

West of Lu Xun Park, open-air seafood restaurants lined the road to the Navy Museum and Xiaoqingdao (Little Green Island). The day’s offerings were displayed curbside in rows of aerated tubs. You made your selections from this living, splashing menu, then chose the style of cooking. The best meal of the trip featured tender clams seasoned with small red chilies, scallops steamed in the shell, hairy crabs trussed with palm fibers, and several tall bottles of cold Tsingtao beer. All of that, plus a fine view of Huiquan Bay.

The Tsingtao Beer Museum traces the history of malt beverages from the ancient Sumerians forward to the contemporary Clydesdales. Between encounters with traditional fermentation vats and the “mystic yeast,” you could also pick up a few tips on beer appreciation, such as “serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious.” The 50 yuan admission fee included a souvenir glass, a taste of unfiltered brew, and a pitcher of draft. As the saying goes, “History is centuries old, but Tsingtao Beer will be fresh forever.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What We Don't Know About Bonefish

After five years on Aruba, I sometimes feel like I know each bonefish by name. This is not true, of course, as I only name the ones that follow the fly head down, for several seconds, before unkindly refusing it. Nevertheless, I feel like I know a significant proportion of our resident fish, and am rather fond of one or two.

But yesterday something happened that made me realize that I don't know them at all.

Based on past experience, I would've said that conditions were not good for bonefishing. A northeast swell had churned up the water near shore. Standing at the edge of a sea-grass flat in thigh-deep water, the occasional wave would smack me in the chest. And there was so much sand and loose seaweed suspended in the water column that I couldn't see my feet.

I hooked a couple of houndfish by stripping a deep-eyed anchovy imitation quickly through the shallows, then paused for a moment to scan the surface, the line dangling from the rod tip.

That's when the bonefish struck, angling up through the murk to take the fly. It quickly made off with all the line in the stripping basket, then pulled off a few yards of backing for good measure.

I don't know how it could see the fly in all that mess, or how—if it could make out its target—it didn't also see me. Nevertheless, it happened: bonefish on the fly, taken with the same sort of inattention that has yielded only a precious few individuals of other, less-discerning species. (Think farm-pond bluegill or hatchery rainbow.)


Later in the fight, a pelican (you can see it in the upper left-hand corner of the frame) dove on the bonefish with the intention of swallowing it. We had a rather intimate conversation, that pelican and I, about appropriately sized prey, and then I bade farewell to both bird and bone . . .