Tortola, British Virgin Islands, evokes pleasant memories.

It has been written that individuals are just a bunch of memories captured in a body.  As we sailed through North Sound and Drake’s Anchorage past Virgin Gordo just before dawn this January, my mind was flooded with memories of our many trips to the British Virgin Islands in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Like everywhere, there have been changes, but it is still a magical place.

A new cruise ship pier at Road Town, Tortola, the capital of the Islands, was dedicated in February 2016.  But Road Town’s population is still only about 17,000, and the whole island has only about 24,000 people.

Dutch settlers called the island “Ter Tholen” after an island in the Netherlands and it was corrupted to Tortola, Spanish for turtle, after the British took control.

Tortola is the largest of 60 islands that make up the British Virgin Islands.  All are volcanic except Anagada which is flat coral.  Because it is low, it is hard to see, and the reef has many shipwrecks.

Tortola once had sugar plantations, but then fishing became the main source of income. Now tourism is the largest industry.  There is very little farming, but one still sees the ubiquitous Caribbean chickens and goats.

There have been improvements over the last five decades.  Where water on Tortola was once drawn from wells, and cisterns collected rainwater, now desalinization supplements the cisterns.

Air conditioning is often an after-thought.  People catch the tropical breezes through open shutters and jalousie windows which also protect from showers.  Many houses have balconies.

We drove towards the highest point on the island, Sage National Park at 1715 feet.  On the way, we passed Cane Garden Bay mentioned in Jimmy Buffet’s song Mañana.

We had many good memories of the B.V.I., and now we have more.

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Helping people get enough to eat: ECHO, North Fort Myers, Florida

002Close to a billion people around the world do not get enough food.  “Seventy-five percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. ”  So reads a sign at ECHO, in North Fort Myers, FL.  Furthermore, it is pointed out that many of the poorest people around the world live on soil or in climates ill-suited for those plant and  animal species.

For generations, missionaries worked with small farmers around the world, but they lacked someone to provide them technical backup, and they lacked a central clearing house to exchange ideas.

Created in the 1970s as a way to help the people of Haiti, ECHO evolved into an organization that creates partnerships around the world to educate and share technologies, techniques, plants and seeds with small-scale farmers and urban gardeners.

They once sent students to Haiti.  Now they bring college graduate interns to Fort Myers to get practical education before going to these poor countries.  The interns are responsible for managing the North Fort Myers farm and seed-bank, giving tours, and responding to requests for seeds.  Their work is supplemented by a growing army of volunteers.

The farm has six agricultural “zones” that replicate climate zones in tropical lowlands, tropical highlands, monsoon areas, semi-arid areas, the rainforest, and the urban garden.

Not all plants grow well in all areas.  Furthermore, sometimes people don’t recognize the value of the plants that grow where they live.  ECHO, working with its partners on the ground in these communities, identifies promising food plants.  They grow these plants on their farm and distribute the seeds.

Uneducated farmers will eat all their harvest or use hybrid seeds that produce new seeds that are infertile.  ECHO’s partners teach them which seeds to use and how to store a portion of their harvest for the next season.

They also develop ways for farmers to use local materials to irrigate and fertilize their land and protect it from insects and other predators.  They use “primitive” materials to create useful technologies.

Not everything works.  Danielle, our guide, said “ECHO fails so the farmers will succeed.”  Feedback is important.  They learn from the farmers in the field what works.  For instance, a single carambola fruit may produce seeds that create seven different varieties of carambola, but only one of those may be really useful for long-term agriculture.

Agricultural development workers come from around the world spending time at the farm and its library of over 4000 books and pamphlets, meeting with others and attending seminars.

ECHO began to publish its findings in 1982 and sent them to 32 interested individuals; their annual report says ECHO Development Notes now goes out to over 3500 people in 180 countries.

Tours are available of the farm.  Cousin Doug, a semi-retired pastor from a “mega church,” is now involved in “planting” churches around the world.  When he and his wife Jane visited, we were fortunate to be given a guided tour by staff member Amy and Danielle, a staff member who had served in Africa.  All four of us came away fascinated by what ECHO is achieving.

ECHO is a faith-based organization that serves people of all faiths.  To learn more, visit echonet.orgCharity Navigator gives ECHO four stars with the top rating in every category.

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Was it environmental destruction, construction or just change? Cape Coral, FL.

002Even environmental carelessness can turn out all right.  In 1957, two New York brothers bought 103 square miles of native Florida scrubland.

They then proceeded to bulldoze almost everything off the land.  They sheared off the brush.  They removed the palmettos.  They cut down the pines, mangroves and palms.

Their next step was to dig over 400 miles of canals.  The excavated rock and sand was piled in between the canals in order to raise lots high enough above the water to sell.

005They called it Cape Coral.  The first building in the new community was a sales office.  A high pressure sales program marketed to Americans, Germans, Italians and other Europeans.  It was affordable waterfront land.  They even had their own airstrip both to bring in customers and to show potential customers their lots.  [That is your lot right down there.]

A 1959 water-view lot (on a canal) cost $990. A riverfront lot cost $3330.  At full build-out, the community was expected to have a population of 450,000.

008The brothers promised new residents every amenity — until those amenities became too expensive for the brothers to maintain.  They sold out in 1970.  The company that bought it went bankrupt in 1975.  The brothers were subsequently convicted for selling underwater lots in another community.

When we first saw the city in 1992, we were astounded at the barrenness.  There were miles and miles of empty treeless lots.  There were fewer than 75,000 people, and most were concentrated in one area at the far south near a bridge to more balanced communities.

003But every cloud has a silver lining.  A small little owl, endangered in some jurisdictions, threatened in others and considered a “species of concern” in Florida, liked it.  These little guys, burrowing owls, are usually less than ten inches tall [25.5 cm] and weigh less than 10 ounces [284 grams].

As their name implies, they like to live in burrows in the ground.  When you are short and live in a hole in the ground, you can’t see much to hunt when you come out of your hole.  More importantly, if there are a lot of trees and brush around, you can’t see the guys out there hunting you.

014Once distributed widely throughout the United States, burrowing owls have been on the decline as their homes were farmed or built over.  Then they discovered Cape Coral.  To a burrowing owl, this new barren landscape was paradise.

Their wild west relatives live in abandoned burrows of other animals.  Cape Coral owls, true to the tradition of Florida developers, dig their own burrows.

Humans are closing in.

Humans are closing in.

They start mating around May and their chicks are gone by October.  During that time, Cape Coral protects their nests from human home builders.

An estimated 1000 nesting pairs live in Cape Coral, more than any other place in Florida.  They attract photographers from all over the world.  The 15th annual Burrowing Owl Festival will be held 25 February 2017.


001Ironically, recent decades have shown it is not a bad place for humans either.  There is now a book: Lies That Came True: The Amazing Creation of Cape Coral, Florida.  The city’s population more than doubled in the last twenty years.  Businesses were created.  Residents planted shrubs and treesThe city landscaped medians.  Those $3300 riverfront lots now cost over a million dollars.

Forbes recently ranked Cape Coral/Fort Myers [its neighbor across the river] as the fastest growing city in the United States.

But as the city builds out, the environment is changing again.  Once again it is becoming crowded for these little guys.  Fortunately, this time someone cares.

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Take a look at the “alphabetical index” at the top of the page.   I have added  hyperlinks.  Now you can find locations and just click on them to go to the relevant post.  

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Birds in our backyard – Cape Coral, Florida

Wood Stork

The wood stork is ugly on the ground but beautiful when he flies.

Last week I wrote of the danger of becoming blasé about our surroundings. But I have yet to become indifferent to the birds we see here.

Florida residents refer to people who come to visit in the winter as “snowbirds.”   So many come, the county population goes up by a third.  We have visitors from the U.S.A.’s North.  We have people from many other countries including a large influx from Canada and Germany.  We have so many Germans here, we have our own Oktoberfest.

He can't read.

He can’t read; he leaves a mess.

The “snowbirds” create traffic congestion, but we try not to complain.   Snowbirds pay sales and other taxes keeping Florida’s overall tax burden relatively low.

But the real snowbirds are birds.  Some stay all winter.  Some just pass through.  Some, like a flock of wood storks, have only been coming to our pond the last couple of years.  Others, like the anhinga, were here long before we moved in.

We are not “birders.”  We tend to refer to most birds with the term “LBB.”   An LBB is a little brown bird — even if the bird is not brown.

We like seeing all our winter visitors every year, even those who bring traffic.

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In an attempt to make the “alphabetical index” at the top of the page more useful, I have added  hyperlinks.  Now you can find locations and just click on them to go to the relevant post.  

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Familiarity breeds indifference.

A week after we married almost forty-eight years ago, my father-in-law sent us a letter urging us to have fun now because soon “the stale familiarity of marriage” would set in. In his own peculiar way, his heart was in the right place.  We often repeat the phrase and are still having fun.

I have often seen familiarity breeds contempt, but it would be better to say  familiarity breeds indifference.

Alie’s father wasn’t totally wrong.  The more familiar we are with a person, a place or an activity, the more likely we are to take them for granted.  We fail to really hear, see, or otherwise sense in an active way.

Many Americans have seen London, Paris and Rome who have not seen Yosemite or Yellowstone let alone our Midwest.

Do couples grow apart or do they just grow indifferent?

The self-help gurus tell us to try to see “with the eyes of a child; see as though you were seeing for the first time; look with wonder.”

As one gets to a certain age, you begin to experience more limitations in life.  We love travel; how long will we be able to do this?  We just visited Sam; how long will he be with us?

Despair and grief are not solutions.  A better answer lies in another trite guru statement: “live in the moment.”  Open your senses now to experience what and who is in your life.

I was fascinated by my first gecko; but at some point he became just another -- Geico?

I was fascinated by my first gecko; but at some point he became just another — Geico?

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In an attempt to make the “alphabetical index” at the top of the page more useful, I have added  hyperlinks.  Now you can find locations and just click on them to go to the relevant post.  

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We chose the British Museum this time.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After our cruise ended in Dover last August, we had a few days in London before our flight back to Florida.  We chose to spend one day with friends in the suburbs leaving us just one full day in the city plus a little time the day we arrived and the day we left.

We find it is best to set priorities and leave those items that don’t make the list for another trip.  Even on a longer visit, we narrowed our list to ten items — the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace did not make the list — and, although it was on the list, we never got to the British Museum.

With such limited time, our priority became the British Museum.  We visited it the first day for as long as our legs held up.  The museum has 10 departments [six geographic and four by subject such as coins and medals, conservation and research].  We saw them all.

The second day we had a more perfunctory London overview on the Hop-on Hop-off bus. We did stop to visit Westminster Abbey, but photographs were not allowed inside the Abbey.

On our final morning, we took a quick tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral — again no photos allowed.

Once again, the changing of the guard did not make the list.  But when returning to our hotel from St. Paul’s before heading to the airport, we found our cab following the guard to the palace.  We waved to the crowd on the sidewalks in a poor imitation of the Queen.

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Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace -- M. Rossman

Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace — M. Rossman

P.S. In an attempt to make the “alphabetical index” at the top of the page more useful, I have begun adding hyperlinks.  Now you can find many locations and just click on them to go to the relevant post.  

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Edinburgh: is it greedy to want more?

Edinburgh Castle -- photo by M. Rossman

Edinburgh Castle — photo by M. Rossman

It is greedy.  But as our ship pulled out of Edinburgh, Scotland after less than 24 hours, I was wishing we had more time there.  As I have written before, cruises take you places you might not otherwise see, but you never have enough time in them.

Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since 1437.  It is on the southern shore of Firth of Forth, an estuary of the Forth River.

A new bridge across the Firth of Forth with the world's first steel bridge behind it.

A new bridge across the Firth of Forth with the world’s first steel bridge behind it.

The Firth of Forth — such an odd name: it became stuck in my youthful memory without really knowing where it was until now all these decades later.

Bronze Age settlers built a fort on top of a volcanic outcropping now known as Castle Rock.  Celtic ancestors of the Scots fought various invaders over the centuries.  It was occupied by the Romans in the late first century.  The Anglo-Saxons captured it in the seventh century and named it Eiden’s burgh or Eiden’s fort.  They held it for 300 years until the Scots recaptured it.  Then the English took it.

The oldest existing building is St. Margaret’s Chapel built in 1130 by her son King David I.  Margaret, a Saxon Princess, fled England soon after the Norman Conquest.  Known for her piety, after her 1043 death her body was smuggled past besieging English forces.  The Pope declared her a saint in 1249.

The community flourished in the 18th and 19th Centuries becoming one of Europe’s greatest intellectual centers.

The area near the Castle filled with narrow twisting medieval cobblestone streets is the “old town.”  The “New Town” was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and features elegant Georgian-style buildings.

Many authors including Robert Louis Stevenson were born there.  J. K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter novel in a coffee shop there because she couldn’t afford to properly heat her apartment.

Chinese philosopher Laozi wrote “a man is wealthy who has enough.”  By U.S. financial statistics, we are not wealthy.  But we have enough.  That is, I have enough until I want to stay in a new place long enough to really get to know it.  Am I wealthy; am I  greedy?  It depends on the day.

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