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Warm beans and wood smoke: Nicaragua's north country

We chose, then, to escape to the North like so many times before. I would make the same journey when I'd needed space in San Diego years before, and I knew the route by heart: it went first to San Sebastian de Yali and then eastward along the mountain ridges to this quiet mountain town in Western Jinotega, where mountains crowded us on all sides and the air blews fresh and cool. For good measure, rains blew in from the West, knocking out the electricity.

So it was that at 7:30 PM, Ericka and I were transported to the previous century. The boarding house of adobe pressed around wooden columns, the meal: refried beans cooked in a heavy pan with onions, some ground beef in spices, flat tortillas toasted over a wood fire, and soft cuajada from some nearby cow.

We ate in near silence, gathered around a small wooden table that a wax candle illuminated in soft orange light. Outside the wooden door, total darkness and the sound of falling rain on the muddy streets. One hundred years ago, in the years before even General Sandino stalked these hills with his armed men, life here was little different at all.

Shreds of Memory: Managua, 2003

July, 2003: A violent sun that thrusts its way through the greenery of Mango and Tamarind trees. Hot air of all sides and no respite from it anywhere, least of all in the house where the fans spin the columns of blistering air through the sala and kitchen. Outside, the parrots in their cages fidget restlessly or nap with their heads under their wings.

I'm passing through shreds of memory of another life I led, not so long ago but so many worlds away – the huge house on a hill in Las Colinas where from the road I glimpse the upper canopy of those immense Mango trees. With shame I recall scolding a man who had been stealing them from a back road by poking the tree with a stick so they'd drop, only to notice I was embarrassing him in front of his young daughter, whom he pushed with him in a wheelbarrow. Why do rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods always abut in places like Central America? Sheepishly, I let him have the mangos, remembering I wasn't even going to be able to eat them by myself. Continue reading "Shreds of Memory: Managua, 2003"

For the Love of Maps

It is one of the most prevalent misperceptions that the purpose of maps is to show you how to get from one place to another. They do serve that purpose, of course. But more importantly, they seduce you into exploring places about which you'd otherwise never have known.

I can understand the lure of GPS units: I use them too, navigating and learning the streets of big cities. And it's tempting to have a battery-operated unit in your hiking backpack that shows you your location in the mountains with a reassuring precision (assuming your unit has batteries, and your bag hasn't fallen into a river, and ...). But when it comes to coaxing you away from home and into new adventure, I find GPS units fail roundly. Just gaze at a big map you've posted on your wall some cloudy morning while you drink your coffee, and see if your boots don't start tapping. Continue reading "For the Love of Maps"

Shorebirds of Long Island

In 1995 I found myself – to my surprise – back in the Hamptons for a summer. And what a lovely summer it was.

With neither job nor job prospect, I spent a lot of late spring and early summer down on the shore armed with a pair of binoculars and the good sense to stay quiet. Here's some of what I saw pecking around at the edge of the Atlantic: Continue reading "Shorebirds of Long Island"

Cold River and Moose Pond: Traverse of the High Peaks Wilderness

November, 1992: I’d just copied this from The Prophet, by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

The correct way to test that hypothesis, obviously, was via a grueling, 50 mile hike through the Adirondacks’ High Peaks region. And as the autumn entered its wan, second half, that’s what we did.

The moon was full the evening before we entered the Adirondack park, after - as usual - a long drive northward and eastward from Ithaca, and a night stuffing as much of Dave’s mom’s fantastic cooking in our bellies as we could. Autumn was becoming early winter, but what we wanted wasn’t green canopy over our heads, but the perfect isolation of wilderness, and a chance to soak in the scents and sounds of the world. With boots laced up and bags strapped on our backs, we set off walking through birches that looked yellow and tired, and set our sights on the far side of the empty woods. Leaves were still falling, but there was more color pooled around our feet than over our heads. Above us, the empty boughs conspired to let in the light of the late autumn moon. Continue reading "Cold River and Moose Pond: Traverse of the High Peaks Wilderness"

Bird List: Lititz, Pennsylvania

screetch owl in tree

This is a list of birds I spotted in Lititz, Pennsylvania, between June 1994 and March 1995. Not much else remains for me of that long, cold winter. But I do remember the leaves around the lake turning auburn in the fading light of summer, the glass-like warble of the Hermit Thrushes in the forest stand behind the house, the Barn Swallows turning circles in the air, and the acrobatics of the Fly Catcher.

Such is life: a few things we carry with us, but most of it we don't. And time alone is the judge of what mattered and what didn't. Keep singing, little birds. Keep singing.

The picture is of a tree in which a family of Screetch Owls had nested – so amazing to see them peering out at me. Continue reading "Bird List: Lititz, Pennsylvania"

Lake Bunyonyi

Lake Bunyonyi seemed hell-and-gone from nowhere, tucked in a volcanic crevice 8 hours' drive from Kampala. And nature's tension mounted as we made our final approach: the wind picked up and began blowing spirals in the dust as the road wound upward through forest. The sky darkened in impending storm, and then, just as our car emerged from the forest on a forest ridge overlooking the lake, the first icy drops began to fall. But below us - almost vertically below us, it seemed - was the lake, and it was bathed in a silver light by a band of sunlight that snuck through a hole in the clouds. Stunning.

Bunyonyi means "place of the little birds" and lived up to its name. We toured the myriad islets the next day on a motorized launch and visited one I'd like to return to camp on. But the real memories will be of the view from the hillside, those dark nights of stars, and the chilly night air. Continue reading "Lake Bunyonyi"

The Cats of Dakar

dakar cats

They were already there when we arrived, the cats of Dakar: waiting for no one, lazing indolently in the sun, circling anxiously when the trash was taken out, napping on roofs or the knife edges of concrete walls. Some of them allowed you to scratch them on the top of the head, but most did not. We knew them by name: "PG" (the matriarch), Lulu, Fifi, Tito, Marsupilami, Calico, Batcat, Arnold, Ashes, Jaguar.

Nights they would skirmish and prowl, revealed to us the next morning in eyes scratched out of their sockets, torn ears, scratches. We wrote more than one off as goners only to find them skulking in the shadows months later, ready for their next brawl. . Continue reading "The Cats of Dakar"

Paean to the Mix Tape

mix tapes rule

When I hear “stream” I think of piss.

You’ve got streaming audio, cloud repositories of millions of tracks, probably from more artists than you’d have time in a lifetime to fully appreciate, much less listen to a single time. This is as good as life gets, isn’t it? Any song you want, on any device?

Wrong.

After spending nearly a decade in a warehouse, a box of old cassette tapes and my old Walkman arrived on my doorstep. Even a decade ago cassettes were old technology, but I hadn’t gotten around to sorting and discarding them before moving overseas, and then they were forgotten. So suddenly, in 2015, I found myself sitting before a stack of mix tapes made as early as 1987. Some worked perfectly well, others were squealing messes that went straight into the trash. And let’s face it, in the age of digital media, the audio quality was truly degraded. I wouldn’t go back to the cassette era for any price.

But the mix tapes … wow. There’s no equivalent today. Continue reading "Paean to the Mix Tape"

Review of the Happy Hacker 2 Keyboard

It's hard to imagine a better day-to-day keyboard to put in front of a serious work computer. The Happy Hacker keyboard skips some of the novel innovations of other alternative designs, and focuses instead on two simple things: keeping as many useful keys as possible as close to the hands as possible, and relocating Control and Escape to positions useful for Emacs and Vim users. But those two things alone make this a super-natural keyboard to use for extended periods. Continue reading "Review of the Happy Hacker 2 Keyboard"

Rant mode: ON

It's been a day of crappy user experience with software. The only known remedy for such state of affairs remains unchanged over the decades: ranting about it on the Internet. Rant mode on.

Hey Skype, your shitty code brings my relatively decent Android almost to a crawl. When I quit your app, I want you OFF, dead and buried! You don't have permission to continue running in the background, sucking the cycles out of my processor and making everything else slow to a crawl, too. Microsoft, quit means quit!

Hey Tapatalk, if your software doesn't install easily and cleanly on my forum, I won't install it at all. Imagine the privileges of access I am granting you to a server I'd like to remain unhacked. Those are privileges I don't give up lightly, and when your stupid plugin fails to install correctly the first time, I get suspicious and reach for /dev/null. Oh, and if your forum keeps forgetting my login? Fuck you. I'll forget you in a heartbeat. Stop being clever and fix your code. Continue reading "Rant mode: ON"

Review of PC-BSD 10.1

I've been a fan of PC-BSD for a long time, because it takes the pain out of installing FreeBSD on a desktop computer, but it's been rapidly gaining features of its own that enhance the Unix desktop. I installed PC-BSD 10.1 and gave it a test-drive, and it's going to stay installed for a long time (and will be good company for my FreeBSD/FreeNAS storage server and my FreeBSD VPS. Yes, I'm a fan.) Continue reading "Review of PC-BSD 10.1"

The Sahelians

sahelians

We emerged from the ridiculous luxury of air-conditioned 4-wheel vehicles at the beginning of a patchwork of sandy trails and the thin speckles of Acacia shadows, many hundreds of kilometers from the coast and even farther from home. This was truly the Sahel, and I've never experienced anything like it. Perhaps I never will.

It's easy to dismiss the far-flung corners of earth, the difficult places where you'd never in a million years ever want to live, where you can't imagine how people get by, where it seems life is too hard to be worth living. But that discounts the fact that people already live there, and they're there today, and it's hard. This is the Sahel. Continue reading "The Sahelians"

The Senegal Green Monkey

Senegal Green Monkey

I was in Kolda, in Senegal's Casamance region, waiting for sundown and the cool of the night. A rustling in the treetops surprised me, and looking up, I watched four shadows go leaping from the branches of one tree to another. Primates! Turned out, the shadows comprised a family of monkeys, and they seemed to be pretty much at home in the trees of the hotel. Who knows, maybe they were there first! Who cares, though: after so many years at the edge of the Sahel, disappointed with the paucity of wildlife and the encroaching of the desert, it was a thrill to be face to face with some happy-looking animals. Continue reading "The Senegal Green Monkey"

New gopher on the prairie

gopher image courtesy of Oklahoma Farm Report

The year was 1992 or so, and on the front counter of Cornell's Ag & Life Science Library was a terminal that offered easy access to all sorts of resources and information, including weather (useful in Ithaca, where morning sun could turn to 8+ inches of snow by afternoon on any given winter day), sports scores, and more. Some of those services were offered using gopher, a cross-system information system that disappeared when something called the World Wide Web overran it with a more compelling interface, graphics, and a less menu-driven approach. I got used to using it, and grew to like it. Continue reading "New gopher on the prairie"