Friday, July 20, 2007

Culture Shock

After a few days back in Bethel, the culture shock of going Outside has about worn off. American culture in the Lower 48 is a whole other world from here. You get used to what you are around all the time, and even the strange can come to seem commonplace. So it is with Bethel.

And then you jump feet first into what most Americans think of as “normal”. A land of paved streets with sidewalks and curbs and gutters with built-in drains leading to underground piping systems that carry rainwater away. A land where most cars on the road are relatively new, and contain a single individual who is often talking on a cell phone while driving. A land where signage dominates the landscape, screaming “Consume! Consume! Consume!” A land where retail marketing is a huge monster, with stores everywhere, selling every imaginable item, and where shopping is a major form of entertainment for many people.

On leaving Bethel, I adapt to this shift fairly quickly, because it is what I grew up with. I know this world, and how to operate within it. But after years in Bethel, I view it differently. It is no longer my definition of normal.

Dutch and I wandered the aisles of Costco and Home Depot and Safeway and marveled at the huge variety, quantity, and quality of goods for sale. And most of it at so much less than we are used to paying for similar items. We bought an extra suitcase (which we needed anyway) to bring home more retail goodies.

And then there is the energy required to function well amidst huge population density. Freeways are packed with cars, and they are all driving fast. It seems like nearly everyone has a cell phone in their ear, chattering away to someone, doing business, planning their lives, walking fast, talking fast, moving, moving, moving. Faces are studies in focused concentration. Irritability and outright anger seem much closer to the surface. I wonder how often people remember to stop and breathe.

I get revved up for all this before I leave Bethel, so that when I land I can hit the ground running. It is when I return that the full force of culture shock hits me. My internal metronome has been reset at 110 beats per minute, and suddenly I’m back to where life around me is moving at 30 bpm. At first it’s like playing a record at too slow a speed (does that analogy date me?).

We’ve been back for nearly a week now, and my metronome has ratcheted down to where it fits with the flow here. My energy is no longer “on guard”, tightened up against masses of people pressing, crowding, pushing to get somewhere ahead of me. I’m back to the inner calmness that I love about my life here. The muddy unpaved streets, the shabby unpainted houses, the unmanicured yards, don’t assault my eyes as they do on first coming or returning here. They are just how Bethel is. Along with people who smile and nod or wave when you pass them on the street; cars that stop to let you into traffic instead of rushing past unseeing; people who ask how you are and really want to know. You get used to what you live with. Traveling outside Alaska puts it in perspective for me. As always, it is good to be home.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Going Crabbing

When Dutch and I left Alabama last Monday, we were headed for Seattle and looking forward to escaping the dense humidity of the Deep South in July. Much of our time there had been cloudy and rainy, which contributed to slightly lower temperature readings but no decrease in sweat factor. At times it was like breathing through a wet blanket. Granted, my tolerance is lower since I haven’t lived there for thirty years.

We arrived in Seattle to find the Pacific Northwest in the midst of a heat wave. For three days the thermometer stayed in the mid-90s, which is rare and unseasonably warm for them. The sky was deep blue and all the mountains were out. Despite the heat, the humidity remained low, which made it far more tolerable.

We rented a car and drove about an hour north to Anacortes, where Dad and Step-mom live. Traffic was eight lanes wide and bumper-to-bumper for most of the trip; I was reminded one more time that as much as I love Seattle, I could never live there again. Just too many people.

By the time we reached the Skagit River Valley, traffic had thinned to a tolerable level, and the scenery was gorgeous. The glacier-clad slopes of Mount Baker (10,778 ft) were a stark contrast to the cloudless sky, and visible all the way down to Seattle. The valley is rich and fertile, and is one of the largest tulip-growing areas in the world. In April when the tulips are blooming, the land is covered in great splashes of color.

Most homes and small businesses in the Pacific Northwest do not have air conditioning; it is so rarely needed that it is not worth the expense. A heat wave such as Dutch and I encountered only occurs every few years (maybe every decade or so) and only lasts for a few days. But when it comes, people are miserable; you can’t just “go inside” to cool off.

Even without humidity, 95 degrees is pretty darn hot, so when Dad said we were going crabbing, I was pretty happy about it. There is always a breeze on the water, and even with the sun beaming down hotly, it is cooler on the boat.

Dad and Jeff, Step-mom’s nephew, are co-owners of a 26’ aluminum boat which is a combination work boat and pleasure craft. It has a 130 hp Honda 4-stroke motor which gives it plenty of power, and it handles easily. Brief aside: Dad and Jeff have decided to sell this boat with its trailer; if anyone is interested, email me. We launched at a small marina on the north end of Whidbey Island and motored past the breathtaking waters of Deception Pass to a cove a few miles away. It was great to be on the water and sooooo much cooler and more comfortable than on land.

Jeff had four big crab pots on board, which he baited with chicken parts. One by one, he and Dutch tossed them over the side in about 40 feet of water. Buoys with Jeff’s name and address marked each pot’s location. When the last pot was placed, we headed back to the marina where the boat will be moored for the summer.

Over the next two days we went back out twice to see what bounty the cold waters of Puget Sound had blessed us with. Sport fishermen are only allowed to take six male Dungeness crabs per day, and only those above a certain size. Females and smaller males must be thrown back. Jeff measured each crab we caught against a measuring tool. As he was tossing one back in the water, I commented that it looked big enough; he responded “that’s a $66 crab if you get caught with it—almost isn’t good enough!”

In 48 hours, we caught ten Dungeness crabs that were keepers; a good haul, though not a spectacular one. They have caught as many as thirty crabs in that length of time. But we were quite happy with our catch. Dad and Step-mom had planned a welcoming party for Dutch and me that would be a big seafood boil. Along with the crab we had shrimp, and potatoes, onions, and corn-on-the-cob boiled in the spiced water. It was all fabulous. And then there was the 5-inch-tall death-by-chocolate cake for dessert. Oh my.

The heat wave ended two days before we left. I wasn’t sorry to have the temperature drop a bit; this Alaskan doesn’t tolerate 90+ degrees very well—my blood is just too thick, I guess. I could have done without the clouds and rain that followed, but it is the Pacific Northwest after all. Rain is their middle name, and rare is the visit that doesn’t have some. I did bring my jacket and wool socks.

Photos by The Tundra PA.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Deep in the Heart of Dixie

Dutch and I have been traveling for the last nine days, with no internet access--at least, none that is even reasonably convenient. We are in the city of my birth, Birmingham, Alabama. So yes, I am a GRITS (girl raised in the South). We came to celebrate my grandmother's 94th birthday on July 7th, and to have a family reunion with cousins I haven't seen for twenty years on the 4th of July. Both celebrations were heartwarming and fun, and will become annual events for us. We are now in the Birmingham airport, awaiting the departure of our flight. After a week and a half with no posts, I was concerned that regular TMD readers might be getting worried about my well being. Fear not, all is well. More to come soon.

Photo of my dancing grandmother with one of her great-grandchildren, by the Tundra PA. I hope I am able to dance on my 94th birthday!