Sunday, November 3, 2013

He Dreamed a Dream

These beautiful youngsters in Namibia are orphans of parents who died from AIDs.

Nine years ago, while I worked in Namibia in southern Africa, I met a middle-aged guy from Iowa named Rob Myres. He was a computer whiz who had chucked the good life in California and had decided to take a right turn in his life to do some good for some of the indescribably poor children in Swakopmund, a lovely town on the western edge of Namibia. Swakopmund was a very German town, with many of the streets being named with Teutonic precision like Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse. It used to be a nasty little gathering point for the defeated and escaping Nazis of the Third Reich as they came down the African coast and waited for their ship to take them across the South Atlantic to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

I remember stumbling into an antique store in Swakopmund and it was filled with Nazi memorabilia - Mausers, swastikas, German iron crosses. I even was told there was a time in the not-too-distant past that the white folks would gather on the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday. They would hoist the swastika on the flagpole while they sang the Reich’s national anthem. Ah, those were the days mein freund!

But I digress. I met Rob Myres for dinner one night and we chatted about his dream. He was buying metal containers from ships and would convert them into classrooms and office space. His dream was to encourage fourth graders to come to his Mondesa Youth Organisation where he would teach them fun things like tennis and would encourage them to read, read and then read some more.

I admired his single-minded dream, though I thought it would crash on the rocks because it is unbelievably hard to fight the bureaucracy in a developing country. The new keepers of the power don’t want a white man coming in to mess with their kids. So I thought Rob would probably throw in the towel after a few more months.

He asked me to edit a book he had written about his adventures and I remember being pretty critical about his story-telling efforts. And then we parted and I lost touch with him.

Imagine my delight this week when I received a note from his, along with this video link:

“In December 2003, I opened a bank account at Standard Bank, Swakopmund Branch, in the name of Mondesa Youth Opportunities. The following month Alta implemented our first programming with 15 grade 4 students. The next year we grew to 25 students and implemented academic enrichment programming.

“And so began the evolution of MYO into what we believe is now the premier youth development program in Namibia. As these things go, it has been more complicated and difficult than I originally envisioned, but it has also been extremely humbling and satisfying. I feel blessed when I get the chance to visit the talented and energetic staff and students of MYO. MYO today serves 110 students in grades 4 - 8. 

“Each year, a growing number of MYO graduates are accepted into one of the very best high schools in the country. This is just one of the many examples of our success. Next year Vera intends to implement a pre-school program that will broaden our reach and better prepare our grade 4 students for the rigors of our academic program. 

“My original vision of MYO was to design and implement a model of education-based youth development programs that incorporated Education Enrichment, Sport, Life-Skills & Extracurricular Activities. The overall objective was to elevate academic capability in a community marginalized by poverty to a level relatively proportional to what a child might receive in a more privileged environment. Life Skills are necessary to help children address the multitude of obstacles they encounter in a community of systemic poverty--obstacles which are barriers to the education process (as well as barriers to happiness and peace). Sport and Extracurricular activities provide motivation for attendance and participation and facilitate development of the Whole Healthy Child.

“After 10 years of MYO, here is what I know to be true.
Without Vera Leech, MYO would have ceased to exist some years ago. Her stubborn refusal to fail and relentless pursuit of perfection is the primary reason MYO has reached the level of success that we have
Our fundamental approach of education enrichment with supporting extracurricular activities is a powerful change agent; when programming is implemented properly using this model, positive change is inevitable
There are no shortcuts in this work. It is challenging, complicated work that must be done every single day. 

Consistency and continuity are critical factors
“Our successes are astounding. Ester recently returned from South Africa where she showcased her award winning science fair project. Frieda is class leader at one of the best high schools in the country. Paulina, a former top 10 Namibian tennis player remains one of the top students in her class--in spite of a brave and difficult battle with cancer. There are of course many more examples of results of positive intervention--much better known and told by MYO staff. 

“Overall, MYO remains extremely healthy and for this we are grateful. To all of you who have supported our efforts--please know you are loved and appreciated. To anyone who would like to join us--please contact me anytime and I would be happy to discuss how you can support MYO.

“I would ask that you please forward this note to anyone who may be interested in our work. Or better yet, forward it to everyone. The videos are a good reminder of why we are here.

“PEACE – Rob"

I’m delighted to pass along this information to my happy band of followers. Be sure to check out the video.

I think you’ll be inspired and encouraged that all is not hopeless in our world.

 I think you’ll be inspired and encouraged that all is not hopeless in our world.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Peregrine Hawk Migration Capital of the World

Jo, left, stands in the shade while two of the bird counters track the flight of the Peregrine Falcon.
We’re standing on the steps to the bathhouse at Curry Hammock State Park, just north of Marathon in the middle of The Keys. It’s a glorious day – sunny skies with bubbling cumulus clouds, azure blue water in the Atlantic to die for.  All is right with the world.

We’re here because this very spot on the steps to the bathhouse is the Peregrine Falcon migration capital of the world.  Thousands of  birds of prey, or raptors, use the Florida Keys every fall as a migratory route to wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.

We’re visiting the official counters: dedicated people who drive from as far off as California (on their own migration, I would guess) to actually count each bird as it passes by their steps.

These folks – there were five of them when we stopped by – are VERY busy. They count thousands of hawks and other birds as they head down the Keys. They’re quite serious about keeping track of each and every species individually. They have clickers for the most popular species and the voices rise and fall as more and more birds fly into view.

We watched as hawks, falcons, eagles, ospreys, American kestrels, swallow-tailed kites, turkey vultures, black vultures, northern harriers deliberately flew by. Ripples of excitement followed each sighting by the counters as they clicked their counters and wrote the tally for each species.

The leader of the group told me one peregrine falcon was fitted with a GPS transmitter when it was released in New Jersey. In 24 hours it was tracked as it flew due south into the Atlantic until it came due east of Miami. It then took a hard right turn and came into the northern Keys where it turned left and headed southwest along the 100-mile chain of keys. This all occurred in the first 24 hours. Then it hopped across to South America and ended up on the southern coast of Chile.

How does it get the energy, I asked. “The falcon will catch birds like swallows on the wing,” the ornithologist told me. “He’ll tear it apart while flying and pack the bird into his craw.” With that, looking through his binoculars he said, “There’s one, right now, with a full craw.” The falcon swooped by at about 500 feet. He regurgitates the food in his craw when he needs the energy and swallows, never missing a beat. Extraordinary.

These migratory birds do this 24 hours a day. So the count by the team is quite conservative.

Here are the counts for some of the birds from 2012:
Osprey: 1,454
Bald Eagle: 22
Northern Harrier: 959
Sharp-shinned Hawk: 1,942
Cooper’s Hawk: 766
Red-shouldered Hawk: 23
Broad-winged Hawk: 7,236
American Kestrel: 3,242
Peregrine Falcon: 3,836
Mississippi Kite: 99
Swallow-tailed Kite: 40

What a wonderful experience to watch these birds slogging southward hour after hour.

We headed farther south ourselves with our friends Mike and Lucy who share campground duties with us. We passed through Marathon where Jo and I have spent many weeks at anchor, awaiting our own weather windows to be able to sail across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas or back up to civilization in Miami and points north.

We eventually came to Bahia Honda State Park (there are 10 state parks in the Florida Keys) where we showed our passes and were honored guests. After 500 volunteer hours of work in the parks, we qualify for this pass which allows free entry to any of the hundreds of state parks.

We’re come to Bahia Honda to snorkel in the gin-clear water. Mmmmm. Delicious. Now this is what retirement is all about!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fishing the Deep

Sun has set as we motor away from the land toward the fishing reef.
It seemed like such a good idea: Let’s all of us, the volunteers at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, take a trip on Sailor’s Choice, a 65-foot power boat. We’d fish for the next night’s dinner.
We loaded up our cars and headed south in Key Largo at 7 p.m. Jamie, our first mate, explained the rules of the ship: 1. He lives by tips alone. So if you don’t tip him, he goes home hungry. 2. No booze aboard. 3. If you lose a fishing rod overboard, that’s a $100 fine. “So, if you fall overboard,” Jamie warned us, “be sure to throw the road back onboard to avoid that $100 fine!”
It was a buttery, warm night. A slight breeze came out of the east. A half-moon lay bright in the sky, while Venus, Mars and Jupiter added to the beauty. We scooted eastward toward French Reef. You motor through shallow water out to the reef. The captain dropped the anchor in 85 feet of water. Jamie provided us with containers of bait (mostly octopus) and the fishing commenced.
I pulled in a chunky triggerfish. Good eating, I was told, and Jamie put it in bucket with my number on it. Yellowtail came aboard, grunts, more triggerfish, a red fish with disproportionately large eyes, and then nothing for a long time.
The times hung heavy on us as we waited for the next strike. My watch said 10:30 p.m. before the captain weighed anchor and moved the boat three miles south to outside Molasses Reef. Jamie set the anchor again and we dipped our bait into the ocean for another try. Ron, our friend from Minnesota, hauled in a small shark which we released. Mike brought aboard a bunch of grunts which he threw back because they were too small to bother fileting.
By 11:30 p.m., we were sagging. It was long past our bedtimes and the lack of big catches hung heavy on the group.
The captain weighed anchor and headed home. We dutifully tipped Jamie and he unloaded our catch. Before much filleting was done, a Florida wildlife scientist joined us on the dock at 1 a.m. He measured our various fish, even opening up their brains so he could remove a small bone that would be analyzed to provide information about the age of each of the fish. “This bone acts like the rings on a tree. It provides u with information about the fish,” he told me. He would mail off each bone from each species, long with data about the length and weight of each fish. The bone will be sliced and then analyzed under microscopes to study individual fish.
James, meanwhile, was slicing and dicing our catch. Our group took home a back of about 10 pounds of fileted fish which we’ll cook for a group supper tonight.

If one looks at this adventure in purely practical terms, 10 people catching 10 pounds of fish makes for pretty expensive fish. But, when you factor in the camaraderie and the pure joy of having the ocean under your feet that, as they say, is priceless.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Simple, Exotic Life

Southeast Asian Tokay.
Here we are, luxuriating in the warmth (just a little too warm, actually) of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We are tucked away in "the Village", as the volunteer area is called at the park. But we are a stone's throw from the folks who drive in with their motorhomes or campers.

Jo and I live in the shade of a giant ficus tree that sends out tendrils to create new root systems to the tree. Ants run up and down these tendrils, working 'way too hard in the heat. We also have a pair of exotic Southeast Asian Tokays. These are fat gekkos with spotted bodies. Because they're categorized as "exotic" they are not welcome in the park. The state wants to guard and protect native plants, animals, fish and birds. But the state is not terribly concerned about the health and welfare of "exotics" so these gekkos - they are about 10-12 inches long - will have their eggs crushed to discourage further development.

We also have an inordinately large collection of blue land crabs. These guys are native. They're also very timid. You see them for a split second and then they sense your presence and scoot down their burrows. The girls are orange colored - really bright orange. The guys range from blue to violet. They are 9 to 12 inches in size and their meat supposedly is quite sweet. That might account for their timidity.

Our job is the usual for a campground host: cleaning bathrooms and walking the lots to be sure the patrons are having a good time. The cleaning schedule at the two bathrooms seem a little obsessive-compulsive. We are required to hose down the bathrooms, then we spritz the area with an antiseptic. Then we scrub the walls and floors. Then we set the hose loose again and rinse all of this down the drains. We then bring in fans and squeegees to remove the water. While this is going on, we sit and chat with the other campground hosts. After 45 minutes, we walk through the bathrooms with numerous towels and get rid of the excess water.

It certainly doesn't provide much in the way of mental stimulation. But we work three days a week so it really isn't too tough.

The one negative surprise about Key Largo (location of the park) is that it just a little too far away from the Miami TV stations. Their antennas are north of Miami, near or in Fort Lauderdale. As a result, we have abominable TV reception. Depending on atmospheric conditions, we can occasionally pick up the CBS station and a couple of public television stations. It is tiresome to watch and see the picture disintegrate into pixels, though I have had some luck in recording Letterman and Craig Ferguson while we sleep. Maybe the airwaves clear up in the late night. But we are not able to watch morning news.

We attended a potluck dinner at the park manager's home last night. Nice location. His home is two stories and has its own dock with a lagoon behind the house. That's definitely a major perk for the poorly paid park service rangers.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

100 per cent Energy Sufficient

An ocean of solar panels provides the energy to operate all of the electricity needs of the village.
What’s the best-kept secret in Florida? I know one that’s right up there.

On the delightful Anna Maria Island, an appendage that hangs out in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of the majestic Skyway Bridge that ties together St. Petersburg and towns to the south of Tampa Bay, this island has a funky Key West feel to it. The architecture is Bahamian-colorful – bright purple accents on yellow, orange and turquoise homes and businesses – with tourists and locals cycling around town or dodging from shade tree to shade tree. It’s hot out in the sun.

But here in Anna Maria Island there is something special: The Historic Green Village. This little enclave of funky businesses, apartments and homes generates all the energy they need from the sun.

Green Village achieved LEED Platinum certification and a Net Zero Energy designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. That’s something that can be claimed by only 100 communities in the world.
This shows the energy generation and usage for one
 day. Click on the picture to enlarge.

This achievement was led by Lizzie and Mike Thrasher, who spend six months on the island and six months in England. They are multi-millionaires who made their money with a baby food company she owned in England. Her husband is an interior designer.

Eleven months after its birth, the Green Village began generating more energy than it consumed. “Our vision was to create a showcase for homeowners, building contractors, school students, business and government decision-makers and influencers—so that they can see what’s possible and can then adapt our ideas in their areas," said Lizzie. "We hope that our ‘show and tell’ project becomes recognized globally as a benchmark in sustainable working and living."

Under LEED Platinum criteria, each Historic Green Village building is heavily insulated, a cost-effective way to conserve energy in any home, and equipped with access to geothermal heat pumps reducing the air temperature to a comfortable level. Additionally installed are photovoltaic solar panels on the rooftops that enable excess electricity to flow from one neighboring micro-grid to another.

Moreover, solar water heating is used in the Village Café, the first business to open its doors to the island community. The café, painted with low-emitting materials, sealants and solvents, is housed within the Rosedale Cottage and owned by the Thrashers.

Ninety percent less potable water is consumed because the property established an interconnected water system harvesting rainwater, stormwater and greywater. Rainwater is stored in bladder cisterns under the deck of the Village Café and spread to flush the various Green Village bathrooms, as hard cisterns below the parking lot irrigate the surrounding native plants with its collected stormwater. Greywater from the café, treated inside brackish purifiers, is also released to further refresh the landscaping.

Our tour guide of this remarkable place was the crusty husband of one of Jo’s knitting friends who lives on the island. Tom Stockebrand knows his stuff. He works for Lizzie because of his knowledge of solar energy. He guided us to the front porch of an apartment and before us spread the hundreds of solar panels which are used as the carport roofs, as well as appearing on the roofs of many of the buildings.

Back on ground level, he pulled up the floor of the patio outside the restaurant so we could see the plumbing of the enormous water bladders for storing the rainwater. Now he is uncovering the myriad charts of energy generation and use. He is concerned that the latest addition to the village, the bake shop, has upset the balance. Because of the ovens and the heat generated which then requires additional air conditioning to cool the interior of the shop, the project has slipped backwards. The solar panels are capable of generating 92 per cent of the current energy consumed. So he frets about making up the deficit.

Tom climbed the stairs to a just-completed but unoccupied three-room apartment. He showed us the massive insulation, the thermal windows and the highly-energy-efficient appliances. The new tenant will be charged for electricity used at 90 per cent of the going rate charged by the utility that normally supplies the juice to run our lives.

All energy usage for the entire village is monitored on a minute-by-minute basis for each of the buildings. Even individual equipment inside some of the units (the Bunn coffee-maker in the restaurant, as well as the chilled display cases may be monitored. In the café, Tom connected the TV set to the internet so he could demonstrate the power usage of each building. That data is sent from Anna Maria Island to Boston, Massachusetts, on a live basis and is available to the public for viewing and analysis.

Tom is a retired engineer who happens to drive around in a 1983 S-10 Chevy pickup truck that’s been converted to battery power. So he talks the talk and walks the walk.
Tom Stockebrand

He keeps tabs on the costs of running his truck: 5 cents per mile for electricity from the grid (assuming 11 cents per Kilowatt). He drives the truck about 5,000 miles a year and expects 4-5 years out of his bank of batteries. (at a cost of $2,500 for the bank). That works out to 12 cents per mile additional for the battery costs.
He can drive his truck for 50 miles on a charge.

The downside: No power steering. No air conditioning, although it could be retro-fitted. He has, when he needs to go a longer distance, put a small generator in the truck bed. That generates power to the batteries. He says he once drove 240 miles out and 240 miles back, using his generator.

He says he uses the truck for 100 per cent of his driving except for long trips when he switches to his wife Joan’s Prius.

The most-asked question? Doesn’t he run out of juice? You run out of gasoline once in your lifetime, he says. So you adjust your lifestyle. Same goes for battery power. He says the nice thing about a battery-powered truck is when it gets low on power, he can still get home. But it is a slow, slow journey. When you run out of gas you stop instantly.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ripples Long After the Rock Hits the Pond

Hla Hla with me at graduation.

Two events this week brought home to me that the rock you drop in the pond continues to make ripples long after it has disappeared.

My two rocks were dropped into the big pond at opposite ends of the world: Namibia and Burma. One was dropped in 2003, the other in 2006.

While Jo and I lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, back in 2003-4, I ran a training institute for working journalists from Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.  Because I was not permitted to enter Burma by the generals who run that country, I had to rely on the U.S. embassy in Yangon (Rangoon) to vet the candidates for the courses. I was only able to telephone the embassy and discuss their choices. 

One young woman, named Hla Hla Htay, was chosen in 2003. She worked as a freelance reporter in the capital. She was very young, 23, but the embassy contact said she had something special in her spirit and in her willingness to sacrifice for her chosen profession. I chose her for the intensive four-month course in Cambodia and she made her way, surreptitiously across Burma’s borders to Thailand and then to Cambodia because the government of Burma was utterly opposed to sending citizens abroad for training.

Hla Hla distinguished herself every day. She was the quietest, most reserved and demure young woman. She loved Daw Aung Sang Sui Ki, Burma’s democracy leader who was being held under house arrest at that time. What I noticed about Hla Hla was she was tiny, perhaps weighing 85 pounds. But she had the strength and grip of a bulldog. When I assigned her a story, she would dig in and dig in, not letting up until she got to the bottom of the story. She’d work day and night, questioning in her polite, quiet way. But she never, ever, gave up. 

So it was with delight that I received a phone call from the head of Agence France Presse’s bureau in Bangkok, Thailand. She wanted to know if I could recommend any Burmese reporter who had come through our Southeast Asia Media Institute who might be a candidate to head their bureau in Yangon.
I had no hesitation in recommending Hla Hla but I also knew she would have a hard time selling herself because she was so shy.

The AFP bureau chief said she would meet Hla Hla at the Bangkok airport to interview her on her way home.

I told Hla Hla of this wonderful opportunity and she was excited but very nervous. I spent several mornings before or after her classes teaching her the art of the job interview. When she looked down while answering  questions I would stop her and require her to make eye contact. When she was self-effacing and down-played her abilities and qualifications, I helped her rework her responses so she did a better job of “selling” herself.

She graduated and headed homeward. I knew I would have a hard time keeping track of her fate because Burma does not permit most of its people to have access to the Internet. They cannot have an email address.

I did hear from her, though. She emailed me somehow, telling me the interview went well and AFP offered her a three-month trial. The news agency increased her pay from $50 a month as a freelancer to $1,000 a month during the trial period. She was “in”.

Then Hla Hla went off the radar. I kept trying to reach her but my emails bounced back from that closed country. I even tried to reach her via another Burmese who had managed to make it to our institute but who turned out to be a spy for the government. This woman had an email address. She also had a cellphone which, I was told, was a dead giveaway she worked for the government. Regular citizen of Burma cannot afford a cellphone which is sold for $5,000 U.S. in that country.
Nothing happened, however.

I Googled Hla Hla by name and found dozens of stories she had written for AFP. I also found dozens of picture she had shot and had transmitted out of the country. She’d made it through her trial and was entrenched as a correspondent. Now, it is with the greatest pleasure, I get to read her stories on the Internet. I still am unable to make contact with her. But it feels so good to watch her progress on a weekly basis via AFP.

Here are the latest headlines
Myanmar's powerful Wa rebels seek a state of their own
* Suu Kyi's party sweeps landmark Myanmar polls
* Daily papers transform Myanmar news stands

Ripple No. 2 occurred yesterday when the ripples reached me from Namibia in Africa.

Christof, partying with Namibian editor Gwen
The news editor of The Namibian, a young man named Christof Maletsky, wrote me to say he needed my help. I had worked with Christof on three occasions – in 2001, 2003 and 2006-7. He is a member of the Damara tribal people in Namibia and, as a result, has to work harder than those who are in the dominant tribe, Owambos, since the latter hold most of the political power in the country. 

Christof wrote me because he had lost a series of emails I had written each day to the journalists at The Namibian while I worked there. These emails discussed my beliefs about journalism. They analyzed that day’s newspaper, seeking to praise and criticize individual stories we had worked on. They talked about the fundamental need for curiosity in all journalists.

When I left Namibia in 2007, I presented a print-out of my emails to the newspaper as a memento. In addition, I had made the emails available as an electronic file. Christof wrote to say he had been using these emails for the past six years in my absence but the newspaper’s computers had crashed and the file had disappeared. Did I, by chance of a miracle, still have a copy of those files? He said he still uses these emails with the new reporters who start work at the paper.
Yes, I did. I found them on my laptop and sent the whole file to Christof in a couple of minutes.

Then I sat in my motor home and meditated about how we sometimes make an impact and never really know until later that we have changed someone’s life. Here were two instances where the evidence was pretty clear.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Paddling Among Manatees

This super-friendly manatee came alongside our canoe and swam upside down alongside a neighboring kayak.
There is an antidote to the awfulness that's running amok in our world at this time: canoeing among the manatees in Lover's Key State Park. Jo and I joined all our other resident volunteers (there are five other couples here), plus another handful of visitors who were on a kayaking adventure this morning.

The brisk wind kept temperatures in the low 70s as we paddled along in our Kevlar canoe. The expedition was led by Justin, a young park ranger. He backed up his kayak to the red mangroves along the bank and pointed out an immature white heron that was poking his beak into the water in hopes of spearing a small fish. As Justin spoke, an enormous manatee rolled over and nudged his kayak as if to say, "don't forget that I'm part of the display, buddy!"

The manatee's closest relative is the African elephant. They have a huge set of molars that are used exclusively to munch on grasses and leaves. We often see them rise out of the water at our campsite to nibble, oh-so-gently, on the red mangroves leaves that brush the water.

This fellow then set about gently nuzzling the kayaks that were close to him. He allowed us to get close enough to stroke him. His leathery skin is slimy with mossy growth along his back.

He left us and slowly paddled over to another set of kayakers who rounded the bend.

We canoed around Black Island, visiting with cormorants, blue herons and outrageously-plumed snowy egrets who were hunted close to extinction more than 100 years ago for their extraordinary plumage. The feathers were used in ladies' hats as a fashion statement but, somehow, good sense prevailed and the birds have been saved so we can admire them in their wild state.

We just arranged to return to this delightful piece of heaven on earth in mid-October for six weeks. We find such an environment to be good for our souls.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rolling On to a Beautiful Island

We live on the little bayou off to the right (arrow). Gulf of Mexico is at left.
We have pulled in the wings of our motorhome, hung our bikes off the back, strapped our canoe atop the Honda, and moved like a gopher turtle about 120 miles to a new park.

We have now taken up residence at what is known as a "day park" on the Gulf of Mexico. It's called Lover's Key State Park. No campers at this one...just folks who come in to enjoy the sand and shells along the miles of beaches. Our motorhome shares a mini campground with five other couples who are volunteers at this park. One couple, the youngest among us, comes from South Kent, Connecticut. Debbie Kaprielian, an accountant, and her husband, Ken, just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and decided to take to the road full-time.

Our immediate neighbors, Bud and Marsha, come from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where Orville and Wilbur Wright managed to get their plane to fly 110 years ago. Bud is a big fisherman and seems to be up at dawn, casting out his shrimp lure to catch catfish.

We are here for only a month, though this seems to be a special place and we will work hard at figuring out a way to come back and spend more time in the future.

Our rig is parked alongside a bayou, off the beaten path. There are wonderful canoe trails on the bay-side of the park. Our volunteer jobs include opening and closing the park, driving the tram that transports visitors from the parking lot down to the beaches, and, of course, the joy of seeing that the bathrooms are maintained and cleaned. Doing all these chores results in our having this first-class site, with 50-amp electricity, full sewer and water hookups, plus access to a washer and dryer. Life ain't bad!

We begin work on April 1 but arrived here on March 28. So we've had a few days to get settled in and figure out the area. We actually are just about 20 miles south of Koreshan State Historic Site where we spent a wonderful two months at the end of last year.

We're glad to have you all come along vicariously. And stay tuned for updates as we uncover new treasures in the days ahead.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Livin' Small

This little bubble is a Casita
Barb sat across the table from me at the Rec Hall. We were sharing freshly made biscuits and homemade jams. Tasty. Barb and her husband, Hony, were at the park for a rally of Scamp and Casita owners. These are tiny little trailers, built in Minnesota and Texas. They are between 13 and 16 feet long, and made of fiberglass. Barb is explaining why she likes the simplicity of her Scamp.

“I don’t have air conditioning in it,” she says proudly. If I want air conditioning, I step outside. I don’t have an awning. If I need shade, I step beneath a tree. I don’t have a TV. It has a bed and a little dinette. It’s everything we need.”

There are 61 Casitas and Scamps in the campground this week. They have journeyed here from all over the U.S. The trailers were made by two brothers who had a falling out and went their separate ways. One makes Scamps. The other makes Casitas. They are the tiniest little bubbles. And their owners are fanatical about their rigs. These things are not cheap. New ones sell for $26,500. But you can still buy a 1976 Casita for $3,200. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Oops! I Just Stepped into Paradise

Knees of the cypress trees create a little village where Hobbits could live.

The five deer stood in the clearing, shafts of sun dappling them while fog wreathed through the trees. The deer watched me closely – but seemed unconcerned. I stood on the pathway and spoke quietly to them. We just quietly enjoyed each other – the human watching these beautiful creatures. The beautiful creatures, knowing they were in a protected place, knew no fear and chewed on the grass and leaves.
We were in a perfect place.

Later, as I drove the loop road of the park, I came upon two more deer. They were walking toward me as I drove the Mule, a four-wheel drive vehicle of uncertain quality with a hiccupping transmission. These deer were more fearful because they were in a trapped situation, walking the fence line. They did an about face and leaped along the sandy road to escape the vehicle.

I stopped by the Cypress Trail. My job is to walk the trail, carrying a gas-powered blower so I can blow the falling leaves off the wooden boardwalk. After blowing for a few minutes, the leaves disappear and I am left in the perfect peace of a cypress swamp.

The knees of the cypress trees rise up from the tea-tinted water. They provide stability to the trunks of the massive cypress as well as providing access to air for the root system. The place looks like something you might imagine from the Hobbit. The conical knees could be little houses. Spiders glitter like jewels in the rising sun. Their webs capture the moist air and it coats the gossamer with glittering perfection.

A ring-tailed hawk swoops down from the sky and rests on the branch of an elm tree above my head. He is interested in the human but doesn't linger.

As I wander the boardwalk, my eye is attracted to the little plaques that have been placed along the handrails. They all remember someone who has passed who had walked this trail. I am cocooned in the love of people who have gone before me. I initially photograph the plaques so I'll be able to remember the words that touch me. But, when I get back to the rig, I think the plaques deserve to stand on their own. So I have placed them to the left of this blog. Enjoy!

Day two on the trail: I was in a Kubota, a noisy but powerful machine that works great on the sugar sand of the back country at Highlands Hammock State Park. I was running the canal on the southern edge of the roosting area for the property. I’d just arrived at the vultures’ roosting area. They congregate together along the road and in the trees – between 350 and 500 of them. I have no idea what draws them to this particular part of the park. As I creep along, they flutter down from their roosts to waddle along the road or to settle on the wooden bridge I have to cross. These birds look awfully healthy. They must have lots of carrion to keep them happy.

 But wait. Out of the canal comes a sleek adult otter. He climbs the bank right in front of me, looks over his shoulder at me in the Kubota, and then quickly waddle along the sandy path. The vultures on the path jump out of his way while others drop down from the pine trees to land beside the otter. But he is having nothing to do with these birds. He slithers down the bank and submerges back into the water.

And so it goes. Not an hour goes by without something special coming into my view. There's a smile on my lips and I whistle as I do my work. Life is good.
This cypress knee has become a bowl that captures moisture in the swamp.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Hidden Treasure

Momma alligator lies in the sun, while the babies wriggle around her at Highlands Hammock State Park.

Oh, what a treasure we have found at Highlands Hammock State Park, in the center of the state. It is old – by Florida standards – having been created back in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, that outstanding program created during the Great Depression by Franklin Roosevelt.

The program put more than three million young men to work, paying them $1 a day. Twenty five of those dollars were sent home each month to the family, while the worker kept $5. He got three meals a day, classes in the evening which helped him learn to read and write. The program resulted in bridges being built, along with roads and hundreds of parks throughout the land. 

Even though the government had access to heavy building machinery, very little of it was used so that more men could be employed. It brought back a memory of a town I visited in Namibia where the workers were complaining the government had brought in a trench digging machine to make a work project go quicker. The men of the town complained that the machine took jobs away from them. And jobs meant money - precious in a population where the unemployment level is 56 per cent. It was a brilliant program that lived on until World War II when the men transferred out to become our greatest generation.
A statue honoring the young men of the CCC stands outside the museum at Highlands Hammock State park (where Jo will volunteer as a docent).

This park is a jewel. Not only are there camping facilities, there are large areas tucked away in the back of the park with wandering trails that take you through cypress swamps, alongside canals that are teeming with alligators and wading  birds.

Jo and I don’t begin our duties for another few days so we have taken advantage of the free perks, traveling the park on the trolley with a veteran volunteer who knows much about the flora and fauna. Kevin took us along a dirt track where the general public is not allowed to travel on its own. He stopped to point out the lurking gators, dozens of them, but urged us to keep out eyes peeled for more exotic creatures. 

He explained the huge value of each of the creatures but made a point of highlighting the gopher tortoise with which we've gotten up close and personal at numerous parks.
The gopher tortoise is a very important part of the local ecology.  As in any food web, if you start taking certain flora or fauna out of the equation, then you can adversely affect the survival of that ecosystem.  

The gopher tortoise is especially important because the burrows, which are dug by the tortoises, also provide homes for other animals, such as indigo snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and other invertebrates. Kevin said gopher tortoise burrows are home to about 250 species of animals at one time or another. They are the key to survival of the different species in time of forest burns where a scorched earth above ground requires safe havens below the earth.  Since the burrows are used by so many species, it does not take a rocket scientist to see that removing the tortoises from the local habitat would leave many animals without homes. 

We spotted a wood stork and heaps of red-bellied turtles clambering onto logs to sun themselves. But the most interesting thing he pointed out was a wonderful little aquatic plant, the floating bladderwort. This little thing has an umbrella-like series of legs with bladders on their ends. The plant floats on the still waters and eats the larvae of mosquitoes. It is carnivorous and does a world of good by cutting down on the pesky mosquitoes.

We met up with another campground host couple this morning. They travel south each year from Indianapolis, Indiana, to spend three months in the park. Bill and June walked with us over to the maintenance yard where they checked out an electric cart and gave us a tour of some other areas of the park while telling us about the facilities and the people who make it work so well.

They took us to the Cypress Swamp Trail, a boardwalk that took us over the watery swamp with thousands of cypress knees that rise two or three feet above the water. These are part of the root system of the cypress trees, allowing the tree to breathe in the swamp. Part of my duties require me to head into the swamp every third week, along with all of the other trails in the park, to check that they are clean and passable. Not only will I get great exercise, but I’ll be able to carry my camera shortly after dawn breaks to capture the primitive majesty of the place.