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Archive for November, 2011

Memory Lane

When I was in about third grade my parents bought a lot in an area of southern Michigan called the Irish Hills. It was a hilly region full of spring fed lakes that was the summer playground for families in the Detroit area. It took about an hour to drive there from my home in Monroe which made it a very doable drive even for a weekend getaway during the school year. They put up a small cottage that grew over the years—indeed my mother’s additions were probably a subject of note to many of our neighbors  Despite the nooks and crannies mom erected it became a retreat host to fond memories of hot lazy summer days spent swimming for hours on end (and some nasty sunburns) and quiet nights full of the sounds of nature and reading books late into the night by a light under the covers of our beds.  At first my parents didn’t have any TV there–they wanted us to spend our time enjoying the lake–but eventually even they realized the benefit of having limited access to television on days when violent thunder storms would make outdoor living impossible. But, for the most part, we spent our summers frolicking in the lake–with its pristine water that often as not was as warm as bath water.

The tiny lake was called Middle Lake because it was connected to two other lakes through channels–Washington Lake on one side (where the boys scouts summer camp was) and Mars Lake on the other side (where the girl scouts summer camp was).   Over the course of the summer it was amusing to watch the convoy of row boats full of young boys from Washington Lake heading to the girl scouts camp on Mars Lake for an afternoon of games and I’m sure more than enough tomfoolery.

Unlike some of the home owners on Middle Lake we didn’t have a sandy beach in front of our cottage. The lake area in front of our cottage was covered in a blanket of water lilies that decomposed over the years turning the lake bottom into a mucky goo that was host to a number of unpleasant things–including the dreaded leeches.  It was a tremendous effort to make a beach where none existed—first pulling out all the lilies, then laying a protective carpet of heavy duty tar paper down to slow regrowth which was then covered by mountains of sand.  The first year my father did the heavy hauling carrying out bucket after bucket across the beach area to create a small (and somewhat sharply inclined) beach that enabled us to walk into the deeper area of the lake. After the first summer my parents took advantage of the icy cold winter and  poured buckets of sand spread out on top of the ice so when the spring thaws came the sand would settle down pretty evenly across the beach.  But each year it was a battle to reclaim our beach and I have vivid memories of lugging even more sand, fear of the leeches and lots of pulling out sea weed and lily bulbs in our spring ritual to reclaim our beach. As my sisters and I left home and our parents (especially our father) aged over the years you could see they were losing the battle against the water lilies and increasingly more of the beach was reclaimed by the rightful owners of our beach front.

Twice I lived in the cottage with my children when their father and I were doing our graduate studies at Michigan State. Although the cottage was really meant for summer living  my children carry fond memories to this day of their time spent there. Rustic or not they loved it and despite the chilly winters we experienced for them it was one of the few places they can call home in the US during their primary school years. No one has lived there –even during the summer–in almost two decades and our discussions about getting rid of it makes them sad–signals an end to an era of their lives.

But time marches on and the cottage quietly nestled there among the weeping willows, lilacs and wisteria bushes planted by my mother—beckons a new generation of children to come play and frolic during their summer vacations in her welcoming arms.

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I don’t go looking for adventures. Sometimes, though, they come chasing after me.  Today adventure came after me with a vengeance.

I’m in Timor Leste a country that shares a small island with part of Indonesia.  It has a violent history with its nearest neighbor and after years of war between the two groups and near genocide of the Temorians the island is now experiencing relative calm. I’m here working with a local CARE team supported by several people from the US including two Brazilans–one a lady, Lotte, who used to be based in Timor for nearly seven years and a young man, Thomas.

This morning Lotte generously offered to drive us all to a barrier coral reef about 50 kms from Dili that she used to swim at when she was here (hint hint:  Lotte is an experienced scuba diver and sea kyacker.  Lesson one:  don’t trust experienced scuba divers and sea kyackers!).  We were all very excited about the chance to go swimming since the beaches here are on the edge of the great barrier reef and  among some of the most beautiful in the world for their underwater gardens.

The water was a wonderful lukewarm and indeed the coral reefs were amazing. But you had to swim quite a ways out to get beyond the canopy of growth below your feet–and even though it was beautiful to look at walking on it was a completely different situation. The reef is slippery and at times the coral is extremely sharp. And to make matters more dicey, occasionally there are tiny sea mites that can sting you–irritating but not life threatening unless you are allergic to their bite.

The sun was shining brilliantly and the water lured us ever so much farther out as we discussed our work and casually chatted about our lives. It was with a bit of a shock as I looked at some rock outcropping that had been way to our right towards the east that I realized just how much the current had pulled us away from the beach now somewhat distant on the horizon. “We’d better head in” Lotte cautioned. “The tide is going to go out soon and we’ll have trouble getting in.”

Well, guess what Lotte, it was ALREADY going out and we were already in trouble. I kept trying to swim faster but the current was pulling me even more quickly beyond the rock out cropping towards the open water.  I kept telling myself not to panic that would only add to my problem but it’s one thing to tell yourself that and another to follow through with the suggestion. It was soon evident to Thomas I was in trouble and he gallantly swam over to my side and politely offered to help.  Pride in my way I told him I was fine but appreciated him staying with me.

Soon it was very clear pride was going to have to give way to common sense. Thomas swam next to me and grabbed my hand and began pulling me in towards the shore and away from the giant boulders he feared might do some major damage if we were to be knocked against them. Even with his help it was a struggle to make any headway.

It took us a good 1/2 hour to get to a place where he could stand and  literally dragged me along. Finally, I could barely get my feet on the surface but the coral was both slippery and rough. My feet would slip off the rock as the force of the current pushed me aside. My panic surged as my foot got cut trying to get a foothold on the slippery reef and I recalled Lotte’s comment there are sharks in the area.  GREAT!  That’s all we need just a few sharks to add to my dilemma.

By this time all the others had made it into the shore and I watched with growing envy wondering how long (even a bit of IF) it would take me to get there too. This I knew–if it weren’t for Thomas I would NEVER have gotten in. Even with his help I was panicked. And I was worn out but you couldn’t stop swimming or the current would pull you out farther. My heart was pounding from the effort to  swim against the current.

Eventually we dragged our way in. I must confess I was a bit wobbly from the combination of panic and physical excursion. Even when we were slowly walking the last few feet to the shore he held my hand–calmly telling me we were okay and he was amazed that I even went in the water at all at my age!! 🙂

So, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well. And other than being a bit embarrassed about it all–the morning ended up fine.  I apologized profusely to Thomas but he just waved it off–just a thing one does in a normal day’s work. I bought lunch for him later that day. I figured it was the least I could do. We later dropped him off at his hotel.  I suspect he took a long nap after all that hard work dragging the old lady to the shore.

I learned my lesson. Next time we go to the beach I’ll keep safe and play in the sand on the shore.  The water may look temptingly lovely; but trust me it’s menacing too if you’re not careful.

Coral Reef Beach in Timor Leste

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