Virgins No More

In 1493 Christopher Columbus visited the chain of islands that he named after St. Ursula and the 11, 000 virgins.

My sister Lee, my friend Kathy, and I were all Virgin Island virgins, having never before set foot upon them.

Until last week.

We flew into St Thomas and took the car ferry over to the island of St. John.

St. John is a US territory, with nearly two thirds of its land set aside as a National Park and wildlife sanctuary.  It was a short drive from our hotel on Cruz Bay…

…to the pristine beaches of the U.S. National Park.

Big blue land crabs made their homes in the muddy floors of the mangrove swamps…

…while tiny red crabs in the tens of thousands sounded like rain on the forest floor when they skittered into hiding.

Pelicans could be seen fishing on every beach.

Iguanas frequented both beaches…

…and grassy areas.

And so many birds!  Dark hummingbirds, yellow songbirds, cranes, egrets, and many others.

Everywhere we saw ruins of a troubled past, where slaves once worked the sugar plantations dotting the island.

Who sat on the tiled veranda of this mansion sipping coffee and enjoying the ocean breeze within sight of the mill, where slaves were forced to stir boiling kettles of sugar syrup in unbearable heat?

At the Annaberg Planation, this windmill processed sugar cane.

It is a relic of a cruel past.

By 1733 slaves outnumbered Europeans 5 to 1.  Harsh laws condoning torture, amputation, and murder were enacted to keep slaves under control, but instead prompted a bloody rebellion.  Slaves rose up and held the island for six months before the French Militia helped the Danes crush the revolt.  Rather than return to slavery, hundreds threw themselves off rugged cliffs into the sea below.

In 1848, when again faced with uprisings, the governor of St. John declared an end to slavery on St. John.

This statue of a slave, sugar cane knife in hand, blowing a conch shell to sound the call to freedom, celebrates hard-won liberty.

Today 78 percent of the population is descended from African slaves.

The Virgin Islands are brimming with color, whether it be in nature’s sphere…

…or made so by human hand.

 It is a place filled with joyful music…

…and lively spirits.

They know how to live down there.

They work hard.

And play hard.

 And take nothing for granted.

All words and images 2014 Naomi Baltuck, unless otherwise stated.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Minimalist.

No Regrets

Forgive me bloggers, it has been two weeks since my last post.

I’ve been traveling out of the country and back in time.  All the stars and planets aligned to make it so.

The journey began, as they often do, with use ‘em or lose ‘em nights at a nice hotel, this time in Cancun.

It was only five days and four nights at stake, and I’d be saving less than the airfare would cost to get there.  But my son Eli was home in between teaching jobs abroad, and he had never been to Mexico.

My Cousin Nancy is always up for an adventure!

If that wasn’t incentive enough, we arranged to stop over in Houston on the way home to visit our cousins, June and Haskell.  We celebrated her 90th birthday with her in San Antonio last summer, and wanted to help Haskell celebrate his 90th.

Of course, they’d been celebrating all month, but what’s not to love about that?

Our first stop:  Chichen Itza.  I’d been there before, but hardly scratched the surface.  Chichen Itza was a large culturally diverse pre-Columbian Meso-American city.  The 1500 year old pyramid at its heart was the Temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god, also related to Quetzalcoatl.

Our guide, Murux, was Mayan. He guided my husband Thom and me on our last trip down.

Murux grew up in the village of Chichen Itza, running in and out of the ancient ruins, playing inside the pyramid, and tagging after the archaeologists excavating the site.  In the 70s, when Chichen Itza became a National Park, locals living within park limits were forced to abandon their homes.

Some still return each morning to sell souvenirs to tourists.  There was something I wished I’d bought last time, only I just couldn’t remember what. Then we heard the snarl of a jaguar in the jungle, an eerie cry.  Then another.  And another.  Oh, yeah!  It was vendors demonstrating ceramic whistles mimicking the big cats worshiped by the Mayans.  I’m not much of a shopper, except when I accidentally purchase rugs, and that usually just happens in Turkey or Morocco.

On this trip I bought only a sun hat, for protection, and two jaguar whistles, for fun.  No more regrets!

If Murux had not been so fascinated by the excavations, today he might be selling whistles or rugs among the ruins.  But he pursued his passions, and became a college professor with a PHD in archaeology.  He also became a lithographer who illustrates his own books about Mayan history and culture.  When not teaching or guiding tours, he explores the jungle in search of ancient villages, or works on digs, excavating ruins.  No regrets.

I asked Murux why they needed all the little pyramids if they had the big one for worship and sacrifices.  He said they were models on which the builders experimented with scale and proportions.  That was how they perfected an amazing acoustic effect.  When standing in front of the temple stairs, one clap of your hands creates an echo identical to the cry of the Quetzal bird, believed to be a messenger of the gods.

Visitors were allowed into the temple until 2006, when a tourist fell to her death.   It’s difficult to grasp how steep and high these stairs are until you are actually climbing up them, or worse, going down.

A forty-five minute drive from there is the smaller, more isolated Mayan village of Ek Balam.

Built 4000 years ago, it’s older than Chichen Itza, less touristy, and more accessible.

We were allowed to climb the ruins, including a very steep stairway like the one at Chichen Itza.

No one knows why the village was abandoned, but the inhabitants filled buildings with rocks to prevent others from moving in.

After further adventures in Mexico, which I’ll tell you about another time, we flew to Houston…

…and rented a car from a good natured cowpoke named Trace.   It’s true what they say; everything IS bigger in Texas.

When we arrived, Happy Hour was already under way.  My cousin Leslie had baked Haskell his sixth 90th birthday cake, a scrumptious carrot cake with cream cheese, raisin, coconut, and walnut frosting.

Haskell mixed our rum and Cokes using an antique gill cup…

 …which was used 150 years ago to measure out the sailors’ daily ration of rum in the Royal British Navy.  Rum from that gill cup was served with a side of whimsey, imagination, and ceremony.  And it tasted so much better that way.

Some folks might call Haskell ancient, now that he has officially joined the ranks of the world’s nonagenarians.  But I say he’s ninety years young.   Unlike many people I know, who are young in years and old in carriage, Haskell is still learning new tricks.

He is still widening his circle of friends and family.

He’s still good with the ladies…and one in particular.

What do you give a guy who has everything, and knows it?  I could think of only one thing.  It was something not everyone could appreciate.  It would involve mastering a questionable new skill.  But I had a feeling Haskell would be up to the challenge.  And of course he was.  He always is.

No regrets!

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Ancient.

Off to See the Wizard

The Motor City might be in my DNA, but at heart I’m a Needle Rat, living, working, and playing in the shadow of The Space Needle.

Scottish Australian storyteller Meg Philp and her Kiwi storytelling friend Lesley Dowding came to visit last month.

It had been too long since I’d seen Meg, my dear friend for over twenty-five years.  I’d never met Lesley, but she was a storyteller, an author, and a friend of Meg’s, and that was good enough for me.  The timing was perfect, not only for Meg to tell at the Forest Storytelling Festival in Port Angeles, but to catch the peak of autumn color.

First stop, a visit to the beach down the hill from my house, for walking and talking…and talking…and talking…

…and sharing a huckleberry sundae at Anthony’s Beach Cafe.

Lesley, Meg, and I walked back along the beach, three birds of a feather…

…watching the ferries come and go.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Aim a camera, ask someone to jump off a cliff, and she might just do it for the sake of the shot.  Meg and Lesley were such good sports!   Again…

…and again!

I presented my city to them.  We began, of course, with The Space Needle.

The view was worth the trip.

Through the protective bars we admired the paint job on the roof below the Needle.

I LOVE Seattle!

The view inside the belly of the beast was almost as good.

Then there was the Needle’s spiffy biffy.

A quick ride on the monorail took us downtown.

The First Nations permanent art collection at the Seattle Art Museum is superb.

“Going for Gold,” featured golden art objects, including ancient brocades, jewelry, even a Faberge cigarette case.

And remember that camera thing I was telling you about?

Next stop, Pike Place Market.

For lunch…

For dessert, we had LOTS of rainbow-colored eye candy.

Then we had our big night on the town.

Yes, we were off to see the Wizard.  I felt like Dorothy with my very own Yellow Brick Roadies, including my husband Thom, and brother Lew.

The Paramount Theater…

…is elegant and historic, and its patrons…

…very high class!

In our days together we also saw this…

…that…

…and the other thing.

Oh, yes…and the OTHER other thing, in an eerie dark alley, well, just spitting distance from the market.

It’s an attraction the way squirrel roadkill or a really big oozy banana slug attracts the eye, even while repulsing other senses you didn’t even know you had.

Yes, I am talking about Seattle’s own Gum Wall, fifty feet high, inches thick.

After years of scraping the wall clean, only to have the gooey gum wads mysteriously reappear that night, it was finally reclassified as a tourist attraction.  It was even voted the second germiest tourist attraction in the world, after The Blarney Stone.  Frankly, I think the Gum Wall should have won, but that’s a sticky wicket, and we won’t go there.  But I will tell you this: it was in the bowels of old Seattle that I realized Lesley and I had formed a friendship that would stick.  You do remember that camera thing I was telling you about?

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

Wait for it….

This one’s for you, Lesley.  I am proud to call you ‘Friend.’

All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck.
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Eerie.

Flying South

It was our last day before our daughter Bea returned to Stanford, so we let her decide how to spend it.  Hiking was her first choice.   In Washington one must often decide—mountains or ocean?

But the trail at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island gave us a little of both, plus some Washington State history.

The trail takes you past the historic house of Jacob and Sarah Ebey, built in the early 1850s, and the blockhouse built for protection from Native American uprisings.  (You can’t blame the indigenous people–they were there first.)

Isaac Ebey found his paradise on Whidbey.  The government was granting 640 acres to each homesteader.   Isaac convinced not only his parents, Jacob and Sarah Ebey, to come homestead on Whidbey Island, but several siblings and cousins as well.

From Jacob and Sarah’s house,  you can see Isaac Ebey’s homestead, pictured below.  He was one of the first white settlers on Whidbey Island, was the island’s prosecuting attorney, a representative of the Oregon State Legislature when Washington was still part of Oregon Territory, and he helped persuade the legislature to separate Washington from Oregon Territory.  Ebey was also a tax collector, a customs agent, and captain of the local volunteer militia.

But there was trouble in paradise.  In 1857 Native Americans–probably Haida–came to avenge the death of their chief at the hands of white men in Port Gamble.  The man they meant to kill wasn’t home, but they knew Ebey was an important man, and they knew where he lived.  They knocked on his door; when he opened it, they killed and beheaded him, taking his head as a trophy.

As we walked past Isaac’s house, I thought of his parents, wife, and children, left to grieve in paradise.

The view was heavenly.  From the bluff, we looked west to the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the south was Mt. Rainier, and the Cascade Mountains were visible to the east.

We took in the smell of salt, the sparkle of sunlight on the water, the feel of the earth beneath our boots.

The trail took us to the water, and then along some of Washington’s highest coastal bluffs.

Below was the beach…

…and Peregos Lake, formed by a narrow spit covered with giant weathered drift logs.

Via switchbacks we descended the steep golden hillside to the beach….

…where we found all kinds of treasures…

…including several dead Lion’s Mane jellyfish, which we examined in detail.

Each moment has become a precious memory which I will bring out and savor as needed, like a box of fine chocolates.

Looping back toward the trailhead…

…I thought about our little chick.

Soon she would be navigating a different coastline.

For her I wished for calm waters…

…and guiding light.

I had to remind myself how lucky we are.   When the pioneers struck out on their own and bid their parents farewell, it was almost always forever.

But for every bird flying south there will be another trip north.  And for every plane flying out of Seattle, there’s another one coming home.

All words and images copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: distance.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Sea.

One More Time

Sharon Creeden has been my good friend for thirty years.

She was a King County prosecutor, a right-brained person in a left-brained world.  I would describe her as a person with one toe deeply rooted in the earth, and an ear bent toward Heaven.  No wonder she left law, and went on to become an acclaimed storyteller and author.  Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice was awarded the American Folklore Society’s Aesop Prize, as well as a Storytelling World Award.

 

Her brilliant anthology, In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime (foreword by Naomi Baltuck!is well known in the storytelling world.

 

But at heart she has always been a poet, and a visual artist.

Sometimes both at once. Her work, Generations, is a collage featuring a vintage photo of four generations of the women in her family.  Having grown up in Kansas, Sharon chose to include the quilt pattern called “Kansas Troubles.”

On the back of this piece–and at the heart of it– you will find her poetry.

Writers, poets and artists, teachers, mothers and grandmothers…hell, everyone occasionally needs a boost.

I am fortunate to know creative people with whom I can retreat and reenergize.

To share ideas…

To feed our spirits…

To get the creative juices flowing.

To create a quiet space to write….

…and write…

…and write.

Whatever it takes!

Last week I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the next writing project I have committed myself to.  Sharon said, “Before dawn this morning, I was stewing about my resistance to starting a new painting and was reading Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING. And this poem came:

I am more than the sum of dried paint tubes and stacks of attempts and tries.
I am the breath of color on canvas,
I am the vision of something never before.
I am the incessant urge of “one more time”.

Sharon transported me from that space of uncertainty.  I felt cradled and spooned by the good women in my life.  I felt bound not by blood and bone, but by our passion for language, story, and the incessant urge of “one more time.”

I know I can and will do whatever it takes.

One. More. Time.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Admiration.

c2013 Naomi Baltuck.

Please allow me to introduce you to another friend.  Jamie Dedes is the founder and managing editor of an inspiring blogazine called INTO THE BARDO.  Above all, Jamie is an incredibly talented poet, whose words give pause, bring smiles, tears, and moments of breathtaking recognition.  You will find her poetry on her blog,  THE POET BY DAY, the journey in poem.  Another good woman.

Going With the Flow

My kids grew up with certain given truths.  Any party at our house is going to involve costumes.

Any snow day will involve staying home from school to play in the snow, even if school is not officially canceled.

And Mom doesn’t go in the water.  Not in pools.  Not in lakes.  And especially not in oceans.  That was their Dad’s province, and just one of the reasons I married him.

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These truths were held to be self-evident, until our first trip to Hawaii.


Not since I was a child had I experienced such a personal relationship with water, warm night air, and moonlight all at once.

Snorkeling changed my life.

 Just under the surface was an alien world, wonder-full, completely new to me.  As close as I’ll ever come to being a virgin again!

My kids even coaxed me into the swimming pools there.  Especially at night the atmosphere was surreal.

Warm, clear, and calm, but with sound of the surf ever present.


For a little while, we were amphibians.

Merfolk.

Golden.

My kids still know that any party we have at our house is going to involve costumes.  They know that snow days are for staying home and playing in the snow, no matter what anyone else thinks.  And they know Mom doesn’t go into the water.  Not in pools.  Not in lakes.  Especially not in oceans.

Except in Hawaii!

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Nighttime.

Click here, for more interpretations of Ailsa’s Weekly Travel Theme: Liquid.

All words and images c2012 Naomi Baltuck

Travel Theme: Oceans (and the Irish Coastline)

In Ireland, the ocean is everywhere.

Sometimes hiding in the mist…

History hangs heavy in the ocean air, like breath moistened by a story.

In rough weather…

Or calm…

Whether watching intently…

Or only vaguely aware of it…

You can still smell the salt in the air…like a ghost.

You can feel it like a heartbeat…

And hear it like a lullabye…

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck