Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Congresswoman Renews Death Panel Fears

ELK RIVER, MN (AP) - Less than twenty-four hours before all the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act take effect, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) renewed her concerns that death panels would be rung in with the new year on January 1.

A death panel is a political term that originated during the 2009 debate about federal health care legislation to cover the uninsured in the United States. The term was coined in August 2009 by Sarah Palin, the former Republican mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, when she charged that the then-proposed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would create a "death panel" of bureaucrats who would decide whether Americans—such as her elderly parents or children with Down's Syndrome were "worthy of medical care."

“Everyone is wishing everyone else a Happy New Year today,” Bachmann said as she peered out from behind a stack of bank deposit slips for the more than $1 million a year she and her Tea Party compatriot husband receive from the US Treasury as various subsidies, “but it’s not going to be a happy new year for millions of my fellow Americans who will be put to death by the provisions of Obamacare.”

Despite being repeatedly debunked by legitimate news agencies and the snopes.com online debunking service, some in the radical right wing of the Tea Bag Anarchy Party persist in spreading fears about the supposed panels.  Their fears are fanned daily by the talking heads on the Fox News Channel.

When asked for a passage in the law that expressly establishes death panels, Bachmann was unable to provide specifics.  “I think you need to talk to Tim Thompson my Chief of Staff about that one. I’ve just been repeating what Roger Ailes and the patriots at the Fox News Channel have been telling us all of us to say.”  Taking a breath from her soliloquy, Bachmann then added, “But real Americans need to pay attention. At midnight tonight Obama is going to start killing people with his death panels.”

Paul “Six Fingers” Anderson, a leader of “Death Panel Watch” an advocacy group of the Tea Bag Party in Lexington, Kentucky, was unable to provide specifics when asked who was on the panels and how often they would meet.

“We really don’t know about that.  You see Obama selects the panels in private with no Congressional oversight.  We all think he does it in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood PAC that he heads,” Anderson said.  Yet when asked where in the law the panels are mandated Anderson was vague.  “I can’t be too sure about that but they are there. Are you from the liberal media? Is that why you’re asking all these hard questions?”

The Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan arm of the United States Congress has stated unequivocally that there is no wording in the legislation that establishes or even mentions death panels.  “I don’t know where these crazy bastards came up with this nonsense,” Kitty Carlisle, chief of the Congressional office said. “I have read every word in the 900 page law at least twice and I can assure you death panels do not exist.”

Confronted with reality Bachmann remained steadfast in her warnings.  “The sad thing is that otherwise healthy Americans are going to be put to death starting tomorrow by the orders of the death panels.  What makes it even worse is that the panels are made up of every day citizens like janitors and car repairmen and unless they do what Obama says they are going to be put to death also.”  Bachmann went on to say that her greatest concern about the law is that Obama will appoint only liberals to the panels and they will only select Republicans to be put to death.

Reached for comment while hunting mama grizzly bears inside the confines of Denali National Park, former Wasilla, Alaska mayor Sarah Palin supported Bachmann’s concerns. “I said it in 2009 and I will say it again until I’m blue in the face….well red in the face…the death panels are there and they have generated more campaign contributions for my Tea Bag wing of the former Republic Party than you can imagine.”

More than 2 million people signed up for health insurance coverage under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act since a late October computer glitch slowed down the process.  On January 1 when the law takes effect there will no longer be pre-existing conditions that can stop a person from receiving health insurance.  Children of the insured will be able to remain covered under their parents plans until they are 26 years old, insurance companies can no longer cut insurance coverage if people get sick, and there are no longer upper limits on the amount of money an insurance company has to pay out if an insured person has a catastrophic illness.  The law also mandates that a minimum of 80 cents on every dollar paid for an insurance premium must be allocated for health insurance and the law also calls for an increase in the number of primary care physicians in the United States. 

Republicans insist that this is all bad.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Cost of a Brazilian Visa

A visa is a document stamped into a passport indicating that the holder of the passport meets the minimum requirements of the host country for entry into that country.  Most of the time a visa is a simple inked stamp that is placed on a passport page and other times it’s a more formal higher tech document with an adhesive back that is placed on a passport page.  Ecuador has taken things a step further and laser prints the visa directly onto a passport page. 

Free visas from places like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands and the United Kingdom

Visas that are stamped into your passport are generally free to American citizens.  If you have ever stepped off a plane in the Bahamas or Mexico and handed your passport to an immigration officer you’ve seen them stamp your visa into your passport.  Once the immigration officer returns your passport you are at liberty to travel in that country for no more than the number of days indicated.  Most countries provide 30 or 90 day visit visas however some, like Vietnam provide a visa valid for one year in which you can enter the country only one time.  

A single-entry visa to Vietnam cost $100 US in 2006

A growing number of countries, unfortunately, are now requiring travelers to obtain a travel visa before arriving in their country.  Concomitantly for travel to those countries if you do not possess a visa in your passport you are not allowed to board the flight from the United States to travel there.  Airlines can receive hefty fines for allowing a traveler on a plane without the needed visa.

Once while standing in line to obtain a free visa before entering the Sultantate of Oman in the Middle East, a Sri Lankan man standing next to me saw my passport and said out loud, “With an American passport you can travel anywhere in the world and you can do it for free.”

Not any longer.

In the post 9/11 era the United States, under the guise of keeping terrorists out, has begun requiring citizens of more and more countries to obtain a visa before traveling here. Costs associated with a visa to the United States are ridiculously expensive in many cases.  For some time during the Bush Administration there was talk of extending this indignity even to “friendly” countries like the United Kingdom and Canada.  Luckily it never happened.  

When you arrive at the border crossing into Lesotho you pay a $10 US tax to use the highway even if you're walking then the border control person gives you an entry and an exit visa "to save you time."  Travel across the border into Namibia and you also pay a road tax but no visa fee.

In retaliation for treating citizens of their own countries like this, a growing number of countries that never used to require a visa for American travelers now do require one before traveling there.  And in further retaliation those host countries are charging American travelers the same amount of money or more to visit there.  Many times these ridiculous visa costs are marketed as a way to increase the amount of foreign hard currency entering a nation.  That might make sense for a poor country like The Gambia or Mozambique, but when Australia and Brazil are charging extortionate prices for a visa you know more than simple economics is involved.
Crossing the border from Koomatispoort South Africa into Mozambique is an experience you're not likely to forget any time soon

To obtain a visa before traveling to a country requiring one is a simple task if you live in Washington DC or New York or in a city that has a consulate for that nation.   There you simply show up at the visa section during the appointed hours when they receive applications.  Turn in the application form, a photo or two, other required documents, and the dreaded visa application fee, and then leave your much cherished passport with an officer of that nation.  In a few days you can return and retrieve your passport with the visa pasted inside.  If you reside outside of an area where consular offices are available you are reduced to entrusting your passport and the application materials to the US Postal Service or FedEx/UPS and have them deliver the application for you.  A very few countries, Australia immediately comes to mind, allow you to apply for a visa and pay the visa fee electronically thus saving you the time of standing in line or mailing in your application.
Crossing from Israel to Jordan is an experience everyone should have at least once in their life!

Several years ago when I traveled to Israel I decided that I also wanted to visit Jordan while I was in the area.  My original plans for this trip were to spend one day at Wadi Rum in Jordan where I hoped to find a Verreaux’ eagle and get a Jordanian visa in my passport.  These well-intentioned plans came to a halt when I tried crossing the Arava, Israel border for my planned day trip.  I had a rental car reserved at the Aqaba airport, so I set off from Eilat two hours early to allow time for the marathon of going through Israeli departure, getting into Jordan, and finding a taxi to the airport.

The first suggestion that this crossing was going to be eventful was the substantial Israeli departure tax that they did not charge at the Taba crossing to Egypt the day before.  Weighing this, I asked what the cost was in United States dollars for a single-entry visa for Jordan.  Checking her chart the immigration agent told me that American’s pay $85 for a visa at the border crossing, and we pay an additional nine-dollar departure tax to leave Jordan and return to Israel.  Ouch.  It was going to cost well more than $100 to leave Israel, get into Jordan and then back out again for a single day seemed a tad too much.

A Jordanian visa is MUCH cheaper if you obtain it before leaving the United States than it is paying a bribe to a Jordanian border control officer on arrival

I had checked with the Jordanian Embassy in Washington before my departure and asked about getting a visa from them.  The person in the embassy told me that it was a two-week process, it would cost $42, and that it was “much, much cheaper” to get my visa at any Jordanian border crossing.  Apparently the Jordanian Embassy in Washington does not talk often with their border crossing in Aqaba because it was more than twice as expensive to get a border there. 
To pass from Lesotho into South Africa at the Sani Pass border control station all you need to do is step over the puff adders lying in the road, hand your passport to immigration, get a stamp and continue on with your journey

Since that trip in 2001 the cost of a visitor visa in many countries has gone out of sight.  In 2004 I paid $100 US for an electronic visa to Australia and two years ago I was told it would cost $100 US for a visa to step across the border into Zimbabwe and the same amount for a visit to Mozambique.  I paid it for Mozambique but refused to give money to the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. There, instead of paying for a visa I simply walked through the Limpopo River with its Nile crocodiles everywhere and plunked myself down illegally in Zimbabwe.

I decided to walk by Nile crocodiles lining the bank of the Limpopo River and enter Zimbabwe illegally than to pay $100 for a visa from the government of Zimbabwe's murderous dictator Robert Mugabe

In preparation for an October 2014 trip to Brazil I checked into the current visa requirements.  The last time I was in Brazil legally was in 2003 when I paid $100 for a multi-entry visa through the Brazilian Embassy in Washington DC.  The new requirements for a Brazilian visa, reprinted below border on harassment.  Why does some civil servant in Brasilia need to see my water bill or my phone bill or my bank statement?
A five-year multi-entry visa to Brazil now costs $180 US plus a processing fee of $89 US

Required Documents
Attention: The Consulate General of Brazil in Miami may require additional documents.
·         Original passport valid for at least 6 (six) months prior to its expiration date. The passportmust have at least 2 (two) blank visa pages. 
Obs: Notice that a passport is considered a valid document only if it is signed by its holder. Therefore, make sure you sign your passport before bringing it to the Consulate General of Brazil.
·         One recent individual passport photo, full-frontal, white background;
·         One electronic visa application form. Please, make sure to provide full information. When you finish filling out the electronic visa application form, print the application receipt, glue your picture and sign on the appropriate field.
·         Letter addressed to the Consulate with detailed information on your trip: tentative dates of arrival and departure, places to visit, contact information, hotel or any other place at which you will be staying. Please, don't forget to sign your letter;
·         Yellow Fever International Certificate (when applicable);
·         Participants in athletic competitions or performing arts events must present copy of letter from sponsor/organizer with detailed information on the event as well as conditions of attendance (informing clearly that there will be no admission fees neither payment of appearance fee, prize money or any other monetary prize);
·         Proof of income from the last 90 days (bank statements, credit card statements showing the available credit line or paystubs). If you cannot provide any of these listed documents, you may have a sponsor who must provide such documents AND an affidavit of support letter assuming full responsibility for your trip. Parents, even if Brazilians, must provide their financial documents to support an application for their children.
·          Those applying by mail or third party must present proof of residence within the jurisdiction of this Consulate (Florida, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Island): copy of Driver’s License or any recent utility bill – issued within the past 90 day).
·         Those applying by mail must enclose a self-addressed pre-paid U.S. Postal Service Express Mail envelope for the return of original passport. Send your application and paperwork to:

Consulate General of Brazil
80 SW 8th street suite 2600
Miami, FL 33130

·           Applicants under 18 years of age must present:
1. Both copy and original of the birth certificate;
2. A Letter of consent signed by the parents or legal guardians: Parents must present original ID document or passport along with the application. If Brazilian citizens, they must submit their original Brazilian ID (Carteira de Identidade) or Brazilian passport along with the application. Remember that a passport must be signed. 
·         Brazilian citizens must travel to Brazil on a Brazilian passport. Those who have renounced the Brazilian citizenship must present proof.

The fee has to be paid by US Postal Money Order or receipt provided by the deposit  machine located at the Consulate's main lobby. The machine only accepts cash and charges US$ 1.00 for the service. The US Postal Money Order should be payable to Brazilian Consulate General.

Most annoying of all however is the cost of a Brazilian visa.  Now the embassy fee is $180 US and if you go through a visa broker/expediter they add an $89 charge bringing the total to $269 for a piece of paper with an adhesive back to be placed in my passport. Not surprisingly the cost to a Brazilian wanting to travel to the United States on a visitor visa is also $180 US. What a coincidence.  This cat and mouse diplomatic game has thoroughly soured my desire to ever travel again to Brazil.  Five times in the country already is more than enough for me despite there being 257 species of birds in the country that I have never seen before and most of them occur only in Brazil. 

The right of a country to require someone to have a visa before entering their nation is certainly a valid one.  And if they choose to charge someone for that visa then so be it.  However charging an extortionate amount of money is ridiculous.  I simply cannot believe that the cost to type my name on a piece of adhesive-backed paper and slap it in my passport costs $180 in salary and benefits to the Brazilian civil servant who does the work.  At the same time a GS-7 passport clerk in the US Embassy in Brasilia doesn’t eat up $180 in salary pumping out visas for Brazilians every 15 minutes either. 

A visa for an American to enter Brazil now costs more than a 5-night Caribbean cruise.  We can thank heavy-handed US policy toward the world post 9/11 for this lovely charge.  AND if you pay in cash at a Brazilian consulate the machine accepting the money charges $1.00 for the service. Such bullshit.

To put the $269 fee for a Brazilian visa in perspective consider this.  A season ticket for the minor league Bradenton Marauders baseball team gives you 70 games directly behind home plate for $310.  A ticket from Tampa to San Juan Puerto Rico on Jet Blue Airlines is $226 roundtrip.  An upcoming five-day cruise from Tampa to Grand Cayman and Cozumel Mexico is $224 per person for five night’s accommodation, transportation and all meals.  Yet Brazil wants to charge me $269 to fly there and sweat in the tropical heat for a few days?  I think not.
It is cheaper to purchase a 5-day Caribbean cruise and sail to Jamaica to get this free visa in your passport than it is to obtain a visa to enter Brazil

It’s unfortunate that nations have to engage in these diplomatic pissing matches however in a lot of these cases I can’t really blame the host nation. After all it was the United States that started laying its heavy hand on them first and they can’t be blamed for striking back.
Friendly, smiling, Thailand doesn't charge an arm and leg for a visa to enter it. In fact entry to Thailand is free. I think I'll go back to Phuket...now where is that Thai Airways website?

However as for me - screw you Brazil.  I’ll find another country that does not charge an arm and leg for a visa and go birding there. Visas for Americans traveling to Thailand and Malaysia are free and I have not been in either country since 2006.  Both are looking better every day.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Ornithologist's Lament

The first day I walked into my dorm room as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls (August 1969) I found this poem pinned to the bulletin board above my bed.  I read it once and have never forgotten a word of its eloquence.  It’s reprinted here for your enjoyment. 

The sun was shining brightly and I could hardly wait,
To ponder out my window and gaze at my estate.

A breeze was blowing briskly, it made the flowers sway,
My garden was enchanted on this inspiring day.

My eyes fell upon a little bird with a beautiful yellow bill,
I beckoned him to come and sit upon my sill.

I smiled at him so cheerfully and gave him a crust of bread,
Then quickly closed the window and smashed his fucking head.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Buffettmas Everyone!

After considerable thought and at least three Kalik beers from the Bahamas, mon, I've come up with the solution to the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays/What Should I Say To Not Offend Anyone non-issue issue. It’s simple and I'm surprised nobody thought of it before. Doesn't matter if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or believe in a flock of pink flamingoes....everyone is covered.

December 25 as I may have mentioned before is not only Ernest Hemmingway's birthday but more importantly its Jimmy Buffett's birthday - the holiest day of the year in the Parrothead Nation. Given that reality and the fact that we actually know the exact day Buffett was born on (as opposed to that Middle Eastern socialist who hung out with prostitutes and provided free health care to lepers among others) I suggest that from now on Buffett's Birthday be the December 25 holiday each year! It crosses all religious belief lines, its cross-generational (instead of believing in White Santa showing up in a sleigh driven by 8 tiny reindeer you can wait for Buffett to show up on a bottle-nosed dolphin - and at least with Buffett there is a slim chance he could actually show up) and instead of shopping for Christmas or Hanukah gifts you just buy each other bottles of Landshark Lager (a Bloody Mary can be substituted if Landshark is not available in your area), sit under a palm tree on Buffett's birthday, and drink them (a fake tree can be substituted at higher latitudes).

This solution solves all of the angst, removes the societal pressures, and still gives people an excuse to shop like crazy, eat like a small army at Grandma's house (substituting cheeseburgers and shrimp for turkey and whatever else) and all you need to do is switch out Christmas carols for Buffett CDs and the problem is solved!

So....let me be the first to wish everyone a Happy Buffett's Birthday! (or Merry Buffetmas if you still need to use remnants of the old holiday) and may a giant bottle-nosed dolphin pulling a 20-foot sailboat leave lots of sun tan lotion under your palm tree (fake or real) tonight.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Three Trips Short of Being Jamerican

Tourism commissions exist to paint sexy pictures of whatever piece of real estate they promote.  Travelers to the Bahamas were once told that “It’s Better in the Bahamas,” and they continued to be told that despite nobody ever finding the “it.”  Travelers headed to Puerto Rico were told it was the “Continent of Puerto Rico” and if you continued on a bit further southeast to Dominica you were told it was the “Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

Marketing of multifaceted Mexico has followed many twists and turns.  Sun worshipers see a flood of commercials showing idyllic beaches and people plunging off rocky cliffs into the aquamarine sea.  For Americans on the West Coast, the tourist commission pushed glitzy places like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta and Cabo.  People on the East Coast are lured with visions of the green Caribbean waters off Cancun and Cozumel.  “Adventure” travelers saw advertisements for trips to rugged Copper Canyon, while those with an interest in archeology and anthropology saw advertisements for the ruins at Monte Alban, Palenque, and Uxmal.  Mexico’s tourist advertisements worked wonderfully, and tourism was soon one of the most important parts of Mexico’s diverse economy. 

Travelers to Jamaica were first lured by pictures of smiling faces and friendly people under the banner of “Make It Jamaica.”  After enough people had tried to make it in Jamaica, and learned that the only smiling happy people were the two in the advertisement pictures, the tourist commission came up with “Make It Jamaica, Again.”  They hoped someone might.

An Air Jamaica (now an extinct airline) Airbus 300 deposited me in Montego Bay on my first trip to the island in May 1990.  Long-time friend and fellow biologist Jon Andrew and I had come to Jamaica for a week of bird watching.  Jamaica has the distinction of being home to 28 species of birds that are endemic to the island.  An endemic is one that exists nowhere else on earth.  That number is the largest number of endemic birds of any island nation in the West Indies.  We were hoping to find them all.

Walking out of the air conditioned comfort of Sangster International Airport into the heavily humid night air of Jamaica we were immediately hit on by hustlers.  One guy wanted to sell me some ganja and another was selling cocaine.  A third said he wanted to sell me his younger sister adding “she’s a virgin,” which after looking at her I found very difficult to believe.  All of these scammers were waiting just outside of the arrivals door and more of them approached us as we walked to our rental car and then stopped nearby to purchase gas.

Jon and I spent a week near Discovery Bay and went on daily forays into the countryside from there searching for birds.  One day we drove to the Blue Mountains above Kingston where, in a flash, I learned that leaving your window down after parking the car was a mistake because someone came by on a motorcycle and stole my tape recorder from the front seat.  Another day we drove into the Cockpit County to look for birds at Windsor Caves National Park. Enroute we passed through the little village of Kinloss.  As we made our way through town we were verbally accosted and told to “get the fuck out of here honky.”  Rocks were thrown at us and knives pulled out from hip holsters and one welcoming man pointed a pistol (I assumed it was loaded) at us as we raced out of town.  Shouted voices behind us were telling us to never come back.

Sugarbelly, the drug-addled manager of Windsor Caves National Park said, after we told him about the experience in Kinloss, “When tourists leave the tourist prisons they find a whole other Jamaica they didn’t know existed.”  The “tourist prisons” Sugarbelly mentioned are the resort hotels that line the beaches on much of Jamaica’s coast.

Our time in Jamaica was well spent and at the end of the week we had seen 27 of the 28 endemic bird species.  I had hoped to find them all so I never had to return to this island but Jamaican Owl remained in hiding and that meant I had to return some day.

The endemic Jamaican owl was the sole reason I returned to Jamaica a second time.  Image downloaded from Wikipedia with no attribution to who took the image

As part of a training program I was in I spent the spring and summer of 1992 on loan to the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges where I lived on Big Pine Key.  For some unexplained reason American Airlines and its American Eagle subsidiary had a ridiculously cheap airfare from Marathon and Key West via Miami to Montego Bay over the Memorial Day weekend .  It was one of those airfares that were too cheap to stay home and I still needed to see Jamaican Owl so against my better judgment I went back to Jamaica.

Seeing a Jamaican Owl is simplest at Windsor Caves National Park and to get there I had to pass through Kinloss again.  This time I did so at 4:00 a.m. when everyone was still stoned and asleep and nobody bothered me. Unfortunately they were all awake and lining the streets of Kinloss at 9:00 a.m. when I passed through town again and although I saw no guns or knives a rock bounced off my windshield after someone yelled “You fucking honky. Get out of here!”

I had followed the Jamaican Tourism Commission’s slogan and not only made it Jamaica once I also made it Jamaica again.  Having seen the Jamaican Owl on the second trip I now happily had no other reason to return there.

However in ensuing years I did return there and I did so for various reasons.  Most surprisingly (and refreshingly) each time I have returned to Jamaica I have not experienced any of the anger and hostility that greeted me on my first two visits more than 20 years ago.  Now when I go there people treat me like I am someone they have known for years and they make me feel welcome. 

Twenty-five years ago my arrival in Jamaica was greeted with guns and rocks and offers to buy virgin sisters. Now tourists are greeted with raggae and soca music

In 2006 I flew to Montego Bay to work on my Jamaica bird list and in 2008 I flew to Kingston for a weekend solely to look for shorebirds in the lagoons on that side of the island.  In 2012 I spent a week there drinking beer at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafes that stretch from Ocho Rios to Negril. Everyone everywhere on the island was happy to see me and made me feel welcomed.  On a hunch I drove through Kinloss one afternoon and was shocked to see little Jamaican kids waving at me as I drove through, many of them saying “Hello, mon” as I passed by.  Not a single knife, gun or rock was in evidence that day.  Just smiling Jamaican faces.  On each of these trips to both Kingston and Montego Bay I was not approached by a single hustler. Nobody wanted to sell me ganja and nobody offered me their virgin sister.  Instead I was asked “Need any help finding your way to the rental car, mon?”

I made two quick trips to Jamaica in 2013; one was a flight to Montego Bay and two weeks later the second trip saw my arrival in Montego Bay on a cruise ship.  On both trips this year I was treated like I was someone who was welcomed by the Jamaicans.  Sailing out of Montego Bay harbor a week ago I actually felt sad that I had to leave the island so soon after arriving.  A taxi driver in Montego Bay asked me how many times I had been to Jamaica and when I told him this was my seventh trip he smiled and said, “Three more trips mon and you’re no longer an American.”   I asked what I would be after 10 trips and he said, “After 10 trips you’re a Jamerican, mon.”  Twenty five years ago I was the enemy and now I’m three trips short of being a Jamaican-American.

I don’t know what has changed in Jamaica but whatever it is it has been for the good.  My second trip there, the one in 1992, I remember talking with a Jamaican man in a bar in Falmouth who, after we each had downed our daily limit of Red Stripe beer, told me that he hated me “because you’re white, mon.”  Hate was a very strong word but that was the word he used.  When I asked why he said “because you were a slave owner, mon.”

I was?  That was news to me.  I told my Jamaican drinking buddy that slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863, a mere 88 years before I was even a glint in my father’s testosterone soaked eye.  I also said that in 1863 my ancestors were 20 years shy of moving from Norway where, at the time, they were mostly interested in figuring out how to catch more cod in the North Atlantic Ocean.

“Doesn’t matter, mon,” my drinking buddy told me.  “You’re white so you’re guilty and that’s all I have to say about it.”

Perhaps it’s a matter of Jamaican’s realizing that their economy is highly dependent on tourism and tourism dollars and if tourists are having rocks thrown at them it’s not really good for the country.  Another thing that I like to think is contributing is the excellent movie Cool Runnings a story about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that came within a loose bolt of winning a medal at the Winter Olympics in Calgary.  The movie and the actors portrayal of Jamaicans was so unlike what I had experienced on my first two trips.  Yet after the movie came out who among us couldn’t like Jamaicans?  The entire world had become a fan of the Jamaican bobsled team and in fact I’m still their fan today.

I often wonder how much the excellent movie Cool Runnings has had to do with the tectonic shift in the outlook of Jamaicas toward visitors

I think the movie not only gave Americans the chance to see Jamaican’s for who they really are.  It also gave Jamaicans the chance to see that we tourists aren’t the marauding bastards they had been led to believe by years and years of anger and mistrust.  Even more so it gave Jamaicans a reason to be intensely proud of being Jamaican.  Maybe that had been lacking before.

Its pure speculation about the movie and I have no way of knowing if I’m even close to being correct about its effects on Jamaicans and Americans about each other.  Maybe the change in attitude and outlook has nothing at all to do with it. However its seems more than a tad coincidental that just a few years after Cool Runnings was released, Jamaicans started to make me and other Americans feel welcome.

A tranquil afternoon on tranquil Montego Bay

I became horribly lost along the north coast during my November 2013 trip to Montego Bay and to Falmouth.  Totally befuddled I stopped a Jamaican man at an intersection with the North Coast highway and told him I had no idea how to find my guesthouse in the hills above Falmouth.  “No problem, mon,” he began, “do you have their phone number? I’ll call them for you and tell them I’m bringing you there.”

Handing him the phone number he called, talked to the guesthouse owner and then said, “Follow me mon, I’ll take you there.”  Taking off in the gathering dusk I followed my guide up into the hills and through the winding roads to the entrance of my guesthouse (I would have never found it in the dark).  Stepping from my car and shaking his hand while thanking him profusely, my Jamaican guide said, “No problem, mon.  It was a pleasure you know.  Americans are important to us in Jamaica and we want you safe and happy while you’re here.”

Whatever it is that has changed in Jamaica it’s a good thing and now I can’t wait to get back.  Actually I can’t wait to get back there three more times so I can tell all my friends that I’m now Jamerican.  I wonder what a Jamerican passport looks like?

Where Was the Outrage Then?

Earlier this week at the state funeral for former South African leader Nelson Mandela, US President Barack Obama walked near Cuban President Raul Castro and rather than ignore him, Obama did the polite and humane thing to do.  He greeted the Cuban President and shook his hand.

Within seconds the right wing jihadists were off on their latest witch hunt to prove that Barack hates America.  One mouth-breather said in a Twitter post that "I knew he was a communist Muslim."

He could tell that from a handshake?

In the feeding frenzy of accusations and inuendo and grave predictions for the nation's future that followed, the knuckle-draggers seemed to have forgotten a couple of things in their past.  

For example, where was the outrage when Donald Rumsfeld shook hands with Saddam Hussein a known terrorist (and made up threat to American security)?  Where was the outrage when angry old man and US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) shook hands with  Muammar Gaddafi the deposed and now-dead former leader of Libya?  At one time in the war on terror Libya was listed as one of the top exporter of terror in the world yet McCain could shake the leaders hand?

And what about when Richard "I Am Not a Crook" Nixon shook the hand of the communist leader of China, Mao Tse Tung?  Or what about when Ronald Reagan was palling around with the communist leader of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev?    

What makes these famous handshakes even more ironic is that McCain, Rumsfeld, Nixon and Reagan flew to meet the people whose hands they shook.  All the trips were intentional.  Barack met Raul Castro at a funeral in a neutral country.

And since we're screaming and hollering about American Presidents shaking the hand of the Castro's what about when Richard "I Am Not A Crook" Nixon shook the hand of Raul Castro's big brother Fidel?  Did the airwaves light up with contempt and anger and was Nixon called a "communist Muslim?"  Of course not - the Fox News Channel wasn't on the air then and Rush Limbaugh was busy using a boil on his ass as the basis for a deferrment from military service.

Taking things to a bit more of an extreme, why did we not hear a peep out of the Republic Party when their god, Ronald Reagan met with the leaders of the Taliban and referred to them as "the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers?"   Can you even imagine the outrage that would have happened had Barack Obama said that?

And who could ever forget the time that George W. Bush not only shook hands with but held hands with and even kissed the sheik who is leader of Saudi Arabia?  You remember Saudi Arabia don't you? It was Osama bin Laden's home country. 

What Obama did with Raul Castro was a polite diplomatic gesture from one world leader to another.  With luck it might open the door for eased tensions with Cuba, a neighbor who needs friends just 90 miles from our border.   Maybe its just me but I would much prefer to have my President shake the hand of the President of a communist nation than to embarrass my country like George W. Bush did with his frat boy prank of massaging the shoulders of the German Chancellor at a meeting in Eruope.  What Bush did to Chancellor Merkel would have been considered grounds for a sexual harassment suit had it happened in a Federal office building in the United States.

Where was the outrage then?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Welcome to South Florida Al Jazeera America

Dear Al Jazeera America

For the last couple of years I have hoped that it would be possible to watch Al Jazeera America on a regular basis in my part of south Florida.  I have followed you online and friended you on Facebook and follow you on Twitter and thoroughly enjoyed the fact-based, ratings-aren't-important way that you both view and report the news.  Talk about refreshing!

Not long ago the Brighthouse Network brought Al Jazeera America to its Tampa/St. Petersburg/Sarasota market.  I have been doing backflips from excitement ever since.  How enjoyable it is to turn on the television and see fact-based reporting from the Central African Republic, and to learn about the protests in the Ukraine from unbiased reporters and to discover that there has been widespread violent clashes among people of different views in Bangladesh (and its been going on for a month) that no other news outlet seems to want to discuss.  Hardly any of those issues that affect the world community are reported on the major news outlets in the United States.

I am encouraging my friends to seek out Al Jazeera in their areas and market you to them saying that the way you report the news is like Walter Cronkite did and like Huntley and Brinkley did back in the days when the news was about the news and not about glamor and about ratings.

Thank you for being there. Thank you for being honest and thank you for openly and obviously being interested in educating your viewers with facts - not trying to sway them with partisan bickering (and for your information politically I am about as liberal as is humanly possible)

Keep up the great reporting AJA, and welcome to South Florida.  You are appreciated more than you imagine.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How I Lost My Guinness Virginity

I am writing a chapter on Tory Island off the coast of County Donegal in Ireland for my next book "A Dozen Random Islands."  The following story is the introduction to that chapter.  It tells the funny tale about my almost instantaneous education into the proper way to drink a proper pint of Guinness in a proper Irish pub.  As the story reveals I dont make it to Tory Island on the original time frame I had set for the trip and my tardiness can only be blamed on Arthur Guinness and his wonderful libation that has been brewed in St. James Gate, Dublin for more than 250 years.  Thanks Art!

My first lesson in the proper consumption of beer in Ireland was provided by Allen, a bearded and burly redhead who seemed to be the only person working at the Cavern Pub in Letterkenny.  I had stopped there to break up the trip as I passed from Dublin to the coast of County Donegal and excitement overtook me as I walked to the front door of the pub.  For as long as I could recollect I have heard stories about the Irish and their ability to drink copious volumes of beer and almost all of that beer seemed to be consumed in Irish pubs.  The Cavern Pub, not far off the main road passing through Letterkenny, looked at least from the outside like the quintessential pub in the quintessential Irish small town and I decided on viewing it the first time that the Cavern was where I would lose my Irish beer drinking virginity.

Although my arrival was in early afternoon I was the only person other than Allen in the pub.  He was wiping down the bar with a rag that looked as if it had survived the great potato famine of the late 1840s.  Perhaps it was not quite that old but at first glance it certainly had not seen the inside of a washing machine in several weeks and maybe more.

“I’ll have a pint of Caffrey’s Irish Ale, please,” I said with great authority when Allen asked me what he could get for me.  I had fallen in love with Caffrey’s Irish ale several years earlier when a friend of mine and I tested it in a suburban Washington DC bar over dinner one night.  Its sorted history of brewing was one of the things I liked about Caffrey’s.  The other thing I liked was its taste and its texture.  I used to describe it to people as being like drinking alcohol-soaked silk.  I cannot think of any better way to describe it.

As Allen absorbed my request for a Caffrey’s his head spun around almost like the little girl in the movie The Exorcist.  His eyes widened and his nostrils flared open as he cleared his throat and then bellowed (not said, bellowed) “This is IRELAND.  We drink GUINNESS here!”  I was almost prepared for him to go into cardiac arrest.

I had tasted Guinness only once before and it produced one of my least favorite memories.  A bar in Key West, Florida called Turtle Kraals had a contest in 1992 called “Drink Your Way Around the World.”  Something like 42 different kinds of international beer was available in that bar and if you drank one bottle of each beer you received a t-shirt that read “I Drank My Way Around the World at Turtle Kraals in Key West, Florida.”  Participants carried a small card with them that contained the name of each of the 42 beers and as each new beer was consumed the name of the beer was punched out by a bartender.  It was a long and laborious process but from it I learned about beers such as Stella Artois and San Miguel that I had never tasted previously.  Each trip to Turtle Kraals I would have two new beers and by the end of my time in the Keys, just before my return to Nebraska, I was two beers short of having drunk my way around the world.

One of the missing beers was Tiger from Singapore and its rich bold flavor made swallowing it a pleasure.  The other missing beer was Guinness and it came in a cold bottle.  As the bartender opened the bottle I heard a distinct hiss come from inside as all sorts of gases were released.  Handing it to me I saw globs of yeast floating around in the liquid reminiscent of a “floater” that passes through your field of view in your eye on occasion.  Placing the bottle to my lips I detected a distinctive scent unlike any other I had experienced while drinking beer and as the first drops of Guinness touched my lips I wanted to throw the bottle away and forego my chance for that coveted ticket.  It was, in a word, awful.  However I really wanted that t-shirt and I fought my way through the bottle.  As the bartender handed me my coveted shirt I told myself that under no circumstances would I ever drink another Guinness.  It didn’t matter if I was dying from thirst I would rather die than drink that concoction again.

Allen, the bartender at the Cavern Inn in Letterkenny, Ireland, caused me to view things a tad differently.  It was quickly obvious to me that I had probably insulted not only him but the entirety of the Republic of Ireland when I asked for a beer other than the coveted Guinness.  After all, to the average tourist, what other than the Blarney Stone is more Irish than a pint of Guinness? And where better to drink one than in Ireland where its brewed?  Wikipedia has this to say about the most famous of Irish ales:

Guinness is a popular Irish dry stout that originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness (1725–1803) at St. James’ Gate, Dublin.  Guinness is one of the most successful beer brands worldwide. It is brewed in almost 60 countries and is available in over 100.  Annual sales total 850 million liters….or 1.8 billion US pints.

A feature of the product is the burnt flavor that is derived from roasted unmalted barley,   although this is a relatively modern development, not becoming part of the grist until the mid-20th century. For many years a portion of aged brew was blended with freshly brewed beer to give a sharp lactic flavor. Although the Guinness palate still features a characteristic "tang", the company has refused to confirm whether this type of blending still occurs. The draught beer’s  thick, creamy head comes from mixing the beer with nitrogen when poured. It is popular with Irish people both in Ireland and abroad, and, in spite of a decline in consumption since 2001, is still the best-selling alcoholic drink in Ireland where Guinness & Co. makes almost €2 billion annually.

Having nearly created an international incident less than six hours after arriving in Ireland I quickly determined that my wisest choice of action was to have a pint of Guinness and have it sooner rather than later.  Allen who at about 30 years old was nearly half my age and at 6 feet 5 inches was about eight inches taller than me (not to mention in much better shape) could easily throw me through the pub’s walls if I annoyed him again.  Discretion being the better part of valor I swallowed my pride and said, “Alright then, Allen, I’ll have a pint of Guinness.  But before I drink it I have to tell you a story about why I don’t like it.”  I then recounted the experience with a bottle of Guinness in Florida with its bad smell and the floating yeast and the altogether forgettable memory it left in my mind.

“Ah, you silly bastard,” Allen exclaimed when I told him the story.  “Didn’t anyone tell you that you never – and I mean never – drink Guinness from a bottle?   Bottled Guinness is for pussies, wankers, and sheep shaggers. Real Irishmen only drink Guinness on draught!”

As he pulled off a proper pint of Guinness for me (and yes there is a correct way and a wrong way to pour Guinness) Allen turned to me, smiled, and said, “Well, you silly bastard. Since you are a Guinness virgin this first pint is on me.” He then added, “And I guarantee you that this will not be your last pint of Guinness.”

Allen’s proclamation turned out to be prophetic because it wasn’t the last Guinness I ever drank. That day, that week, that month or that year.  One taste of Guinness draught and I was hooked.  I had thought that Caffrey’s Irish Ale was like silk but that was before I tasted a draught Guinness for the first time.  It went down smooth. It went down easily.  It went down often and as I saw the bottom of the pint glass rise up to meet me it went down quickly so I could have the pint refilled and not miss out on one scintilla of the wonderful flavor of my newest most favorite beer.

As I slowly made my way through the second pint Allen, now much less uptight, began to talk with me like I was one of the locals.  He had in his pub at least eight beers and ales other than Guinness.  Each was Irish or Scottish and as we discussed them Allen asked if I’d like to taste one.  Switching from Guinness to Bass he told me the story of how it was brewed and how it tasted like it tasted and why that was.  A similar experience in England a few years ago provided me with my first insight into why British beers are so much more tasty than anything produced in the United States.   As I tasted my way through the other’s on tap in the Cavern Pub it was readily apparent to me that none of them came close to Guinness in flavor and certainly none of them had anything at all like the storied history of Arthur Guinness’s libation. 

I stayed at the Cavern Pub a bit longer than expected and tangled with about three more pints of Guinness than I should have attempted.  It wasn’t long before standing up was a challenge and standing straight became an impossibility.  Rather  than let me loose on the Irish highways Allen insisted that I cancel my reservations further west for the night and instead of driving on the wrong side of the road with a belly full of Guinness as my guide, Allen insisted that I stay with him and his family for the evening.  It turned out that Allen and his hospitality were the rule, not the exception, among Irish people as the remainder of my trip to the Emerald Isle would reveal. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This Is Where I Saw the Black-capped Petrels

Black-capped Petrel - Photo by Chris Haney

The Biology Department at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls offered a course in Biome Biology during spring quarter 1973.  A biome, as defined by the dictionary, is “A major regional or global biotic community, such as a grassland or desert, characterized chiefly by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing climate.”  Major biomes in North America include the Great Plains grasslands, Arctic tundra, Eastern deciduous forest, Sonoran desert, and other large expansive conglomerations of similar habitat types in a similar climactic zone. In the spring of 1973, UW River Falls chose the Everglades wetland biome in subtropical South Florida (the second largest wetland on earth) as the biome it wanted to focus on. 

Sequestered in northern Wisconsin made it difficult to have hands-on experience with anything subtropical and especially the Everglades so during spring break 1973 the class (all 14 of them and 2 professors) headed south out of the Wisconsin snowbanks bound for Florida.

One requirement of the class was that everyone had to select some aspect of the biome to conduct research on while in subtropical Florida.  Some students chose birds and bird distribution as their research topic and others studied plants.  One student took along small live-traps and captured various species of field mice and other small rodents for identification.  One student and her husband chose to study the inshore fauna of Gulf of Mexico waters to determine what species of small animals occurred at various depths away from shore.

After the spring break trip had concluded each student was required to present a seminar on their research findings.  Some of the presentations were very high tech for the time and some were loaded with data.  Others, well, not so much.  One of the not-so-much seminars was presented by Marynell Redmann and her husband Jack who had studied the inshore fauna of the Gulf of Mexico.  As the seminar droned on Marynell showed slide after slide of the creatures they had found and near the end of the presentation as she told a story about seeing some species of shark swimming with its dorsal fin out of the water, she flashed a slide on the screen that showed nothing but open water.  There were no fins.  There were no birds.  There was nothing but ocean and sky and Marynell’s narrative for the slide was, simply, “And this is where we saw the shark.”  The picture could have been taken on Lake Superior or anywhere else where there was a large expanse of water.  It would have made no difference where it was taken because there was nothing in the picture but water and sky.

I thought about Ms. Redmann and her long ago presentation a few days ago while on a cruise as we were returning north along the northeast coast of Cuba.  There at about 7:40 a.m. on December 6, 2013, I found a pair of black-capped petrels in what was probably some sort of display posture out over the ocean about 30 miles from the Cuban coast.  Black-capped petrel is a fantastic seabird that nests only in the mountains of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and maybe Jamaica.  Finding one is the pinnacle of any bird watching trip on the ocean. 

This is where I saw the black-capped petrels

As I watched the pair flying back and forth in high arcing bounds over the ocean I took out my camera to take a picture.  Of course the birds were too far away to see with the inadequate focal length of my lens.  However I snapped a picture anyway and it’s displayed above.  As you can see there is nothing in it but water and air yet the picture gives me the perfect opportunity to paraphrase Marynell Redmann 40 years after the fact and say “And this is where I saw the black-capped petrels.” 

I have wanted to make that quip ever since that night in May 1973 when Marynell filled us in on shark habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A "What a Small World" Encounter on Bonaire

So he hangs out with the sailors
Night and day they're raisin' hell
           And his original destination's just another
        Story that he loves to
tell.. Jimmy Buffett

There was considerable debate among travelers to Aruba who had made side trips to Bonaire regarding which airline flying between the two islands was worse.  Sentiments were strongest that Dutch Caribbean couldn’t find itself in a room with only one airline.  Dutch Caribbean’s problem was that it ran late if it ran at all.  It got its start after the demise of ALM Antillean Airlines, an airline with its own set of problems. Dutch Caribbean, however, was even worse.  Horror stories were legion about cancelled flights and stranded passengers and missing luggage and nobody at the airline seemed to care.  The stories reminded me more and more of Bahamasair or LIAT each time I heard a new one.

The other nemesis of flying in the ABC islands was Bonairexcel. It was an upstart that flew only between Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire.  The chances of being stranded in Port-au-Prince or Miami didn’t exist with Bonairexcel; still they had a huge problem with not understanding the concept of an on time departure or what it meant to arrive on time.  It was, after all, an island airline so travelers had to expect there to be “no plane on Sunday” even in the middle of the week.

I was in the Netherlands Antilles to spend a few days on Aruba. I went there primarily to get the airport and also because I could add a few species to my South America list by being there. Things like North American nesting warblers that winter in the Caribbean but not so often on the South American continent. Plus there was the draw of this being a nation of islands and I have an incurable addiction to islands.  There was also the draw of the frequent flier miles I could accumulate by going there. 

Travel to ABC islands in winter is not for the faint of heart because airfares are outrageous and hotel rates are similar.  Winter is the best time to travel there however because of the abundance of wintering birds.  Once the migrants have departed, the outrageous airfares and hotel rates leave with them.  The “shoulder” season, after the winter crunch and before the summer break period, is regularly a good time to travel because of the relatively cheaper costs of everything.  I chose to come to the ABC islands in late March for that very reason.

A travel agent in downtown Oranjestad finally convinced me to go with Bonairexcel and not chance it on Dutch Caribbean. “Yes,” she said,” you can fly on the jet to Bonaire in 20 minutes on Dutch Caribbean, but you’ll wonder if you’ll actually get there.”  Bonairexcel is not a reliable airline but at least you have a better chance of getting to Bonaire on the day you wanted to go, and in your case returning the same day.”  I booked a roundtrip on Bonairexcel.

Bonairexcel’s flight had all of its 42 seats occupied for our 9:00 a.m. departure to Curacao and then on to Bonaire.  I noticed in the departure lounge that Dutch Caribbean Airlines had a nonstop to Bonaire departing at 8:30. Based on what everyone said earlier I expected the flight to show that it was severely delayed or even canceled but the status never changed.  Sitting in our departure lounge, I heard the gate agent for Dutch Caribbean say “This is the last call for Dutch Caribbean flight 280, the 8:30 nonstop to Bonaire.” They were leaving early. 

My flight left on time for the 20 minute hop to Curacao where we sat on the ground maybe 10 minutes and then made another short hop to beautiful incomparable Bonaire.

As we descended for our landing at Flamingo Airport on Bonaire the first impression I had was that I was returning back home to Grand Turk.  My first indication was the cobalt blue waters from a wall at the edge of the island. This is what so many divers come to experience.  Once over the wall and its ringing reef and then over dry land, all that was apparent in any direction was harshly dry desert scrub. Then, looking to the south there was the huge Solar Salt Works and its many salinas. There were apparently feral donkeys nibbling on salt tolerant grasses along the airport border fence. It was Grand Turk on a much grander scale..

Although the ABC islands are all part of the Netherlands Antilles, each has its own immigration and customs formalities that must be followed. Aruba has its own currency (the Florin) while Bonaire and Curacao use the Netherlands Antilles Guilder. It’s a strange arrangement.  Because I was making just a day trip I only had with me my day pack and enough water to last a life time.  Customs took an interest in my lack of luggage and assumed something was up and the questioning began.  When I took out my binoculars and told them I was here to look for the flamingos they understood and waved me along.  They should have.  The passport stamp for Bonaire is a huge flamingo.  Avis gave me the option of one of two vehicles. I could have a Ford Taurus that “has a little problem with the air conditioning,” or I could take a beat up truck with no air conditioning at all and pay $20 a day less. The decision was self-evident.

Leaving the airport I followed the very obvious asphalt road (that would be “sealed road” in British) that hugged the coast going south from the airport toward the massive salt works. 
Bonaire is one of the top dive destinations in the world  It has a lot to do with the Bonaire Marine Park that was established in the 1970s specifically to protect the spectacular reef habitats that ring the island. In 1961, while most places were still nailing turtle shells to the wall and slurping turtle soup, Bonaire was enacting legislation to protect sea turtle eggs and nests. In 1971, at a time when divers carried spear guns in much the same way that divers today tote underwater cameras, Bonaire banned spearfishing from its reefs. In 1975, the island made it illegal to break coral, take it from the water, or sell it--activities that are still practiced today in the Indo-Pacific. It was no wonder, then, that the government of Bonaire decided to create the Bonaire Marine Park, the next logical step in the island's conservation efforts. With the financial support of the World Wildlife Fund of Holland, the Marine Park was established in 1979. The park's purpose is to ensure that Bonaire's marine resources-its magnificent coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves-remain intact so that everyone can enjoy the coral reefs for years to come. The Marine Park encompasses about 2700 hectares and extends around Bonaire from the high water mark to the 60m depth contour. Bonaire's narrow, fringing coral reefs encircle both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. The reefs are very well preserved, very diverse, and support an amazing array of reef fish.

Brown pelicans were quite numerous offshore and the occasional osprey flew over on a morning lap around the island reminding any and all fish who really was in charge.  Despite the bleak habitats my most favorite Caribbean songbird, gray kingbird, was present and vociferous no matter where I went on the island. This was a welcomed addition to my South America list.  I worked my way south along the west side of the island until I came to the first of many salinas maintained for the production of salt.

Caribbean flamingoes are the main ornithological attraction on Bonaire

As with salt pans (as salinas are called in the Turks and Caicos) almost everywhere, these on Bonaire were dripping with herons and shorebirds.  Here among all the fairy shrimp that grow so abundantly in these wetlands were typical herons.  An abundance of shorebirds, no doubt many coming back north from wintering habitats in south and central coastal South America, were feverishly feeding along the salinas edges.  The real treat on Bonaire, and one of the principal reasons for coming here was the Caribbean flamingos that occur here. Bonaire is home to a small breeding ground enough for about 2000 flamingos to nest, one of only a handful of such breeding grounds worldwide. The population of flamingos island wide ranges from 7,000 to 15,000 depending on the season. The Flamingo Sanctuary is located in the salt pans on the southern end of Bonaire and it is strictly forbidden to enter there. However, flamingos can be seen meandering about the salt ponds, and are generally quite visible.

By early afternoon I was starting to get massively hungry and as luck would have it I found the Sorobon Beach Resort and their funky little restaurant called the Sugarbird (a colloquial name for Bananaquit). When I pulled into the parking lot of the Sugarbird I saw a car with a Minnesota license plate on it. My first thought was “those bastards are everywhere.”  Despite Minnesota bragging about their 10,000 lakes, they regularly are allowed across the border into Wisconsin where they defile our 8,000 lakes.  And then there’s the issue of their purple-clad “football” team, and between the two it’s enough to drive a native born Wisconsin boy to drink.  And that’s exactly what I needed at this point because the gallon of water I’d sucked down since leaving the airport was not quenching my thirst.

I walked into the Sugarbird wearing shorts, flip flops and a University of Wisconsin t shirt. I was, as Freddy Neal says in his song Everybody’s Talkin, in a land where “the weather suits my clothes.” Finding an empty table I plopped down and ordered an ice cold Cerveza Polar, the best beer in Venezuela.  I then opened the menu and scanned.  From where I sat I could clearly see the ocean not 100 feet away so, by Buffett’s rule, it was safe and acceptable to eat seafood and they had blackened grouper on the menu and everything else is history.

Everything that is except for the white-skinned woman sitting at the table next to mine. She was a tad older than me (that would be the age of dirt) and was talking to a Bonaire resident. When my beer arrived she noticed my Wisconsin t shirt and asked if I was from there.  Heartily acknowledging that I was she said “Oh, I’m from Minnesota.”  I asked if she was the culprit driving the car with Minnesota plates I saw in the parking lot and she acknowledged that she was.

She had first visited Bonaire 12 years ago and instantly fell in love with it.  Since then each year she and her husband would vacation on the island and that continued until hubby died and now she wisely escaped Minnesota’s winters and like a Cape May Warbler that nests in Minnesota, she wintered on the island. 

I asked where in Minnesota she was from and was told “White Bear Lake.”

“And where in Wisconsin are you from?” 

“Rice Lake”

“Rice Lake?  My brother lived in Rice Lake until he died.”

“What was his name?”

“John Irgens”

“John Irgens? So you were Bea Irgens’ sister in law?”

“Yes I was.”

“Bea Irgens was my mom’s best friend.”

“Is your name Faanes?”

“Yes it is”

“I knew your mother through my trips to Rice Lake to see my brother”

Talk about a small freaking world!

She asked me, “Are you the biologist who helped Bea stop that freeway they were building around Rice Lake?” 

“Yup, that was me.”

“You certainly created a stir when you helped Bea stop that road.”

I said “that was my intent.”

In the early 1970s the Wisconsin Department of Transportation concocted a plan to build a wider, better, Highway 53 extending from Eau Claire to Superior.  Where they wanted to build the freeway, on the west side of Rice Lake, was probably the most poorly thought out alternative location for the road. However these are highway engineers we were dealing with and of course they know what’s right and they wouldn’t listen to a fired up middle aged woman like Bea. Yet Bea wouldn’t back down and among other things enlisted my help in getting the freeway stopped.

I was a first year graduate student when Bea and I attended a public hearing on building the freeway.  Of course all of the pro-development city fathers were there at this hearing to talk about environmental impacts, and they were talking about how wonderful the freeway would be and the economic bonanza’s that would follow its completion.  This was the first time (of what would turn out to be many times) that I went up against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on a highway construction project.

At the hearing I laid it on thick with information about how the geology of the proposed route was not conducive to supporting the increased stresses from the weight of the freeway and the cars that would travel it. I talked about the rampant development that would occur at the intersections of surface roads and the freeway and how much that development would hose the earth. I talked from prepared notes and at the end of my fifteen minute presentation almost everyone in the audience at the Community College auditorium booed me. I had never felt so good knowing that simply by being there and telling the truth I was pissing off these people.  It was a tradition that has continued ever since.

Less than a day later, Dick Kaner, news director of local radio station WJMC, and obvious Republican, was on the air railing about me and my testimony and about how I didn’t care about Rice Lake and its development because I opposed this foolish freeway. Then there were the threats against me. Dick was so wrapped around the axle by my truthful testimony that he threatened my life. It was reported back to me that Kaner was saying that “He’s sick. I hope I see that son of a bitch in the woods during deer hunting season. He won’t be coming back alive.”
My uncle Buck (yes I really had one) heard about this threat and wasn’t at all impressed. In fact one Friday night after a fish fry my uncle Buck called Dick Kaner at his home and told him “Dick, I hear you’re practicing psychiatry without a license?”

Kaner asked what he meant and Buck said “I hear you’re telling people that my nephew is sick because he opposes that new freeway.”

Dick replied, “That’s right. The son of a bitch doesn’t care about this city or its future.  He just cares about his birds.”

My uncle, who flunked “subtle” in school, took a deep breath and quietly told Dick that “if I ever hear you say another disparaging thing about my nephew, Dick, I’m going to shove my fist down your throat and pull your balls out through your nose. Did you hear that, Dick?”  The threats stopped.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation eventually built the which is how things usually work with environmental issues.  We put off the destruction for a few years each time we stop them but eventually they win. My only vindication was the fact that everything I had warned about happening environmentally if they freeway was built wound up happening after the freeway was built. Serves them right. I’ve only driven on that road one time doing a round trip from Rice Lake to Superior. Every other time I’m there I drive on the back roads. I won’t contribute to its environmental damage.

This lady in the restaurant on Bonaire had heard the story as I recounted it to her.

“That’s the way Bea told the story,” she said. 

“That’s because that’s exactly how it happened.”

With a belly full of Cerveza Polar and blackened grouper, I worked my way up around the east side of the island into some more substantial desert habitats.  I checked out many side roads as I circumnavigated the southern end of the island finding much the same for birds in the fantastic desert vegetation of this largely unscathed island.  It was refreshing to be on an island where protecting the environment is such an important task for everyone there, mainly because people realize that if their reef is screwed up there goes the dive industry.  And protecting the reef starts on the land.

In 1980, Costa Rica was the quintessential banana republic. Bananas were by far the most important force in the economy of that little peace loving nation.  In the early 1980s the Costa Rican government set aside 24 percent of the land area of the country as national parks. This included an awful lot of tropical rainforest. Today, not surprisingly, ecotourism is the number one industry in Costa Rica.  The same holds for fantastic little Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. Seventy percent of that island is preserved as a national park and now the number one industry is environmental tourism.  Bonaire saw the light and protected mother earth and immediately began to reap the benefits. The earth is secure. Money flows in from all over the world, and none of the dire predictions of negative thinking people have ever come to fruition. 

After enjoying the heat and humidity of Bonaire for a much-too-short period of time I slid back to the airport to catch my 5:30 departure to Aruba.  It left on time. The Dutch Caribbean nonstop back to Aruba at 5:30 also left exactly on time.  The airport was the typical laid back Caribbean experience where Type A’s from New York were freaking out and the rest of us who knew that all things work out didn’t much care. Granted my time on the island was limited but from what I saw and experienced and felt I know that the woman from that state west of Wisconsin had the right idea. She picked up and moved south and didn’t want to go back. After being on Bonaire, who in their right mind could blame her?