How Long Have I Been Sleeping?

Posted September 16, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Jackson Browne Fans will recognize that as the evocative first line of his epic song “Late for the Sky.” And that line is followed closely by “How long have I been drifting alone through the night?”

Together they pretty much sum up my past two months, during which I moved, alone, back to the island, and lived, alone, in a self-induced fog of contemplation. Beautiful contemplation, but solitary.

I’m living on my own in the house where I watched Shel die, without even a cat for comfort, and that’s proven to be a lot harder then I’d anticipated. The island has changed a lot in the intervening five years, and so have I. I’m doing a one-woman proof of the old maxim that you can’t go back, only I have. At least for now.

I’ve spent an unfathomable amount of time with my new spirit animal, this harbor seal, who lives just in front of my house, all alone. I look him in the eye as often as possible as if to say “you have a friend, right here,” but perhaps he is indifferent to my attentions, although he does gaze back at me. I look for him often, and always feel better when I see him. That’s how alone I am.

This heron is another solitary soul, an occasional companion, but his voice is a shocking, grackling squawk, reminding me that I used to sing pretty well, and could again. If I had the heart.

Although I don’t want to emulate his singing, I do plan to follow his example in another dimension. Soon, I’ll fly away. I’m a person who’d rather be on land or at sea, but soon I’ll be in the air for some 19 hours, on my way down to the bottom side of the earth, if maps are to be believed. Australia, New Zealand, and amazingly enough, my second visit to New Caledonia are in the offing.

I’ll be leaving the Northwest’s rainy, thundery almost-autumn, and arrive in the southern hemisphere’s early spring. Going back to Sydney feels familiar, I can visualize where I walked, drenched with rain, in search of an elusive opal. This time I’ll be able to visit the Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains, and I’m hoping not to be too jet-lagged to give them my full attention.

New Zealand will be all new to me, a place I’ve always wanted to go, with so many wineries I long to visit. And no, Tolkien lovers, no Hobbit-related photos are forthcoming, just wineries and whales and Maori sites. All of which sounds like heaven to me.

And then back to New Caledonia, a place that wasn’t even on my radar a year ago, and now this will be my second visit.

Last time I didn’t join people in this beautiful water because: Sharks? Sea snakes? People seeing me half naked? But this time: Screw that! Pack a snorkel, mask, and fins! If people don’t like how I look half-naked they can look at something else! Like: Keep your eyes out for sharks and sea snakes and stinging jellyfish and off of me!

So for the next month I’ll be back on and off a cruise ship, trying to be my best and happiest self wherever I go. Still alone, but more myself than ever. And of course I’ll post it all here. It helps to know you’ll be with me in spirit.


Transplant Shock

Posted July 26, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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I’ve kind of been stunned into silence lately, getting ready to leave my cozy life in Walla Walla, moving back to my island home, and then trying to settle in. It’s taken me three entire weeks to relax enough to reflect.

I’ve been going in all directions, every which way. After four years away from my island life I’ve gotten a bit lost and even taken the wrong roads a couple of times, and had to re-invent every tiniest part of a daily routine. This house has stairs; my knee wishes it didn’t. It’s amazing how much energy it takes just figuring out when to go up, when to go down. It’s all been surprisingly exhausting, uprooting myself, making me feel that I must indeed be getting older.

I have been trying to work on one thing at a time, but keep getting distracted by the sheer number of things that need to be done. I’m going very easy on myself, not doing more than I want to in any given day, even though that prolongs the chaos.

The many hundreds of bumblebees in my garden are so focused and industrious that it makes me feel more productive just to watch them. I call it seeking inspiration, so as not to call it taking a break.

These blue and pink hydrangea blossoms are blooming on the same plant, defying what I think I know about soil chemistry. They remind me of myself, pining for my old home, kitties, and friends, but also slipping back into my old ways with surprising gusto, the two states existing simultaneously,

the old and the new colliding in the present. Who will emerge victorious? Because this is a contest, my happiness project. I’m giving myself a year to see whether I can find more happiness here than there, and it’s a pretty high bar.

I’ve left my old life behind, kind of. I’ve made sure that my home and cats and garden in Walla Walla will be perfectly preserved a year from now, should I choose to go back.

But like these blueberries that I planted before I left the island, the fruit of a possible new life is still a long way from being ripe.

The sun is shining now, but there was a long run of misty and coolish days, perfect for contemplation. Every night I have dinner right here, and ask myself what I really want. I’m giving myself a year to find out, engaged in a happiness project.

Because like it or not, I am inexorably aging, and while there’s no use wallowing or despairing, there’s no use denying it either. If I am lucky I now have the last quarter of my life left to live, and my goal is to make the absolute most of it. Where’s the best place to do that? I’m letting time tell me.

Forgotten Pleasures

Posted March 13, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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It’s been so cold, so dark, for so long that I’d almost forgotten there was anything else. The kitties have been staying indoors, usually snuggled into my flannel sheets. I have resorted to putting on my warm and freshly-washed fuzzy clothes right in the laundry room, so as not to lose a bit of warmth.

Outside it looked like this. For about a solid month. I hung out in the kitchen, making big pots of pork chile verde, short ribs, and chili.

We had a miraculously sunny day, and I started dreaming of salad and looking at seed catalogs.

But then the snow got even deeper, and just stayed that way, interminably. My back yard was continuously buried in snow for at least two months. Until today.

Minou re-discovered the joy of sitting in the sun and watching the snow melt.

Toby scrambled up the delicate branches of the contorted filbert tree and onto the roof, checking for icicles and scouting out the best place for a sun bath.

Wearing flip-flops for the first time since I got back from Hawaii, I wandered around the snow-free edge of the garden and saw that the heliotrope, and various bulbs,

were struggling their way up through the frozen ground.

Amazingly, this sage, which was entirely covered with snow for two months, is still green. I have no idea how plants photosynthesize under snow.

The temperature this afternoon was 44°, but it felt like the tropics after weeks spent in the 20s. The kitties and I sat and basked in the sun, and I swear they looked as surprised and grateful as I felt. We had all forgotten the incomparable pleasure of resting in the sunshine after a long cold spell.

Soon the birds will be able to bathe again. The cats will shed their thick winter coats and will lounge on the warm patio, panting slightly. And I? I will be getting ready to move back to the island. Onward into spring and summer, and westward ho.

Be My (own) Valentine

Posted February 14, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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If you, like me, are spending your Valentine’s Day alone, let’s talk about that. This is my fourth time around this particular holiday-sun since Shel died, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Because deep down I don’t think the day is a cliché, a reflection of crass commercialism, a day of platitudes and saccharine sentiment. I absolutely am for the idea of a day that celebrates love, in all its forms.

Last night I had a good cry, anticipating the annual sorrow of the day. But today I’m making a good effort to be my own Valentine. Because, if I’m honest, it’s been that way for a long time.

Shel, for all that he loved me madly and preferred rom-coms to all other films, was not great about Valentine’s Day. I’d remind him, and make some sort of minor fuss over it, and he’d play along, but his heart was never really in it.

He’d have chosen sheltering from the Mediterranean sun under a tea towel, while cleaning salad greens, over dining at the nearby Michelin 1-star any day, and that goes for a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day as well. In fact, this picture was taken not long after V-Day, which is also celebrated to a moderate extent in France, way back in 2009.

So you’d think that by now I’d have a plan, a sure-fire approach to tackling the day on my own. Only kinda sorta, to tell the truth.

I thought about sending myself flowers, but then I thought better of it. I did do a lot of other comforting things for myself, some of which are undoubtedly peculiar.

First, I turned the heat up one degree. I always leave my daytime heat at 64° in winter, to the despair of my chillier friends. Normally I wear a lot of fleece and shawls in the house, and am sometimes a bit cold, sometimes not. But when people come over I turn up the heat a bit, a degree or three, to be kind to them. I decided to give myself an extra degree today, just for me alone, which turns out to be sort of like giving myself a continuous hug.

I also cooked myself a nice dinner and served it to myself with a pleasing and memory-laden bottle of wine I brought home with me, after a visit to a tiny winery in France, a couple of years ago. Because if I don’t drink it today, then when? And who is going to appreciate it more than I?

As a gift to myself I finished my taxes in just one afternoon, a personal best for me, both in earliness of date completed and shortness of time spent filling out forms.

I went into my icy and snowy back yard with my camera and crunched loudly through the snow, looking for beauty.

I made sure to feel happy, instead of jealous, for my friends who still have their loves beside them. I snuggled a lot with Minou and Toby, who are conveniently spending almost 24/7 in the house to keep their dainty paws off the tundra formerly known as home.

And I made sure to be glad to be alive. Because that’s not a given, not to be taken for granted for the space of one breath. Which is, after all, the space that makes all the difference. That one breath, whether you draw it alone or in the arms of your best beloved, is your real link to this earth, to this life. Valentine’s Day is just the celebration, that breath is what makes it all possible. Keep breathing, keep loving, that’s my plan, and I hope that it’s yours.

Aloha To You All

Posted December 20, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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These beauties are Princess Ka’iulani and Princess Lili’uokalani, before the latter became queen of Hawaii. They lived in Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States, and Lili’uokalani was Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.

For our day in Honolulu I had planned on a tour to the Polynesian Cultural Center, which ended up being cancelled, to my deep disappointment. Getting there on my own seemed next to impossible, so I decided on a more mundane day.

I started out at Don Quijote’s, a fantastic grocery store that almost made me decide to move to Honolulu just so I could shop there. There I scored some Japanese and Hawaiian groceries to bring home and actually had to take a taxi back to the ship because my bags were so heavy.

Next I walked up toward the palace. This is a sign you wouldn’t see just everywhere.

The palace dates back to 1882, and exhibits the lovely rococo features of the era, decked out for Christmas, or Kalikimaka.

There’s this stunning hand-carved koa wood staircase,

a throne room, formal dining room,

and a display of dresses with impossibly small waists.

The palace also has a dark side. Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown in 1893 by a group of American sugar plantation owners and businessmen, backed by U.S. Marines and the Navy, and she was imprisoned for eight months in a single room in the palace. Two years later the monarchy of the Kingdom of Hawaii was dissolved and in 1895 Hawaii was annexed by the United States. A lot of native Hawaiians are still very unhappy about this.

Not quite knowing what to do with myself, next I went down to the Ala Moana shopping center, where you can buy everything from impossibly beautiful white peach jellies

to a Tesla. Yes, right in among the other shops of the shopping center. The place was my idea of a total nightmare, with about 300 shops. It’s open air, but completely surrounded by traffic and parking structures, and it was packed with what must have been a third of the population of Honolulu. I did find a very nice poke bar there and had an early dinner, before walking through Ala Moana park on my way back to the ship.

The next day we were in Lahaina, where my tour had also been cancelled. This time I was determined to get out of town, and I managed to organize a small group of passengers to head out into the countryside. That’s Haleakala in the distance, wearing a necklace of clouds.

The whales were said to be around Maui, and although I kept my eyes on the ocean, this was all I saw of them.

Turtles, though, turtles were there. Our guide said that some of these guys are over 100 years old. They paid no attention to us whatsoever, as befitted their advanced age.

The shore break was really rough, and there were shark warning signs, but that didn’t stop the surfers. I couldn’t help but notice the little memorial park on a rocky outcropping at this beach, where there were about a dozen crosses in memory of surfers who lost their lives here.

Next we headed for Twin Falls, which was kind of an island Eden. The ground was covered with a layer of treacherous roots, and it wasn’t at all clear how they would ever extricate you if you were so unlucky as to break you ankle in them.

I would have accidentally-on-purpose fallen into this gorgeous pool, if it hadn’t been for my fear that the guide wouldn’t let me back in the van all sodden and soggy. I have to say that I’ve had more pictures taken of me in the past three months than in the past 10 years put together. My fellow passengers are obsessive about insisting that every moment be captured.

On the grounds by the waterfalls there are some truly impressive stands of giant bamboo, and even a few out-of-focus coffee berries.

After a visit to the Surfing Goat Dairy Farm and some shopping along the picturesque main drag of Lahaina, I had a sunset dinner with some picturesque friends.

That’s Althea, Virginia and her husband Jim, and Joyce. In truth the setting at the restaurant was so lovely that I made them all pose for me, but I’m happy to have these mementos of our last meal in our last port of the trip.

We’ll be home tomorrow, after a journey of over 24,000 nautical miles, which is more than 27,600 plain old miles. We’ve visited 14 countries, and 38 ports over the past three months. I’ll write another post about life on board, but this is really the end of the journey. In the beginning it seemed like it would last forever, and yet, here we are. Time is funny that way.

Only One Samoa

Posted December 18, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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We were supposed to visit Samoa, on December 8, and then the next day, American Samoa, also on December 8. They are one people historically, sharing a culture, and a language. The vagaries of the International Dateline mean that Samoans, traveling from one country to the other, have to ask “are you arriving on your December 8, or our December 8?”

However, Samoa is an independent nation, whereas American Samoa is a U.S. territory.

It’s a complicated story, but when we arrived in Apia, Samoa, I was hoping to learn all about it. Sadly, after we docked and the first 50 people went ashore, the ocean swell grew so strong that three lines holding us to the dock were snapped. even though we had the engines running to keep us in place. The captain quickly moved us out into the bay before either the ship or the dock could be damaged, and the crew set about finding and collecting the passengers that were already on shore. Many were gathered for an excursion, so they were easily retrieved, but the others had some interesting experiences. The local authorities put out a call to taxi drivers to find the foreigners, but several passengers thought they were being scammed when a stranger in a taxi pulled up and said “Hurry, your ship is leaving. $5 and I will take you there.” Eventually everyone understood the situation, got back on board, and we set sail for American Samoa without visiting Apia, which I regretted.

There’s not a lot for a day-tripping tourist to do in Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango), American Samoa, so I went on a colorful bus tour of the island. The windows are down when you need cooling and up when it rains.

The bus was decorated for Christmas.

Our guide was trying to train three new workers for the business, her cousin, and two high school girls. They were all delightful, but frankly I don’t think any of them has much of a future as a tour guide. Actually, the girls were thinking about a career in the military after graduation. American Samoa has poor employment prospects, and the highest military enlistment rate of any U.S. state or territory.

Our tour began with an uphill drive to the site of Pago Pago’s cable car, once the longest aerial tramway in the world. It’s been rusting away since a Navy plane hit the cables in 1980 and crashed, killing six people.

We passed the Department of Education’s offices,

the town firehouse, about which our guide said “somehow they can never seem to put out any fires,”

several tuna canning factories, where the workers were on break, and visited the museum.

There we saw the recently discovered jaw of a baby sperm whale,

and a huge and beautiful tapa, which is a traditional type of painting on bark (docent for scale).

All of the interpretive signage was in two languages. So if you’ve ever wondered what the Samoan language looks like, here you go.

We crept along at a gear-grinding snail’s pace, ever upward through the rain forest, and got a little lesson in rain forest ecology.

From the mountain top we were able to look down over the harbor and even see our ship in the distance. When people asked how the tour had been my answer was invariably “green.” It’s one of the greenest and most fertile lands I’ve ever seen.

We also visited a tiny village in a far corner of the island, which had some very pretty houses,

and a small school. Teachers there are mainly volunteers, often on religious missions.

Every family has a fale Samoa, which can hold many people and is used for all kinds of ceremonies and gatherings.

Sometimes they are also municipal gathering places. All in all it was a low-key visit to what felt like a low-key country. But everyone has land, and thus a place to build a home and plant a garden. I would have liked more time to understand the place, but overall my impression is that it’s a pleasant and peaceful island. I just wish that the kids had better alternatives to enlistment.

Fiji, For The Food!

Posted December 15, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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In Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji, I decided to take a market tour and cooking class with the Flavours of Fiji Cooking School. Once again I was the only person to take the tour. I don’t know how I keep getting so lucky, although it’s bad luck for the tour operators to have just one guest. Anyway, I had a blast all by myself with Ajay, Lia, and Arti.

We started out in the vast kava section of the market. Lia and a kava vendor tut-tutted over the way I’d had it prepared in Vanuatu, so primitive. Here they dry the root and reduce it to a fine powder before mixing it with water.

Next we saw this pretty dried fish,

although the fresh fish were even prettier.

Freshwater clams were sold by the heap. Really, that’s the unit of measure, the heap.

There were bitter gourds and mangoes galore,


rose apples,

beans that looked like scarlet runners,

and mountains of peppers. About 40% of Fijians are of Indian descent, and their culture of spicy food is very much a part of Fijian cuisine.

I was fascinated by the way these taro roots are sold, with stems attached. Lia told me that you can plant the stems in the ground, along with a bit of the root, and get new taro. Evidently it works just like pineapple, and is a very efficient form of reproduction.

I was also fascinated by the beauty of these vendors, an auntie and her niece.

After the market we went to the cooking school, which is really lovely, spotlessly clean, and well-decorated.

There’s a lot of coconut in Fijian cooking, and Lia gave me a lesson in how to grate fresh coconut, starting from the outer edge.

I didn’t do very well, but I blame it on the fact that she made me sit sidesaddle to grate, like a lady, instead of straddling the contraption like the men do.

We were to cook six dishes together, three native Fijian, and three Indo-Fijian, and all the mise en place was already prepped. We each cook our own portions, across the table from each other. I told them I was an accomplished cook, and that I once had a personal chef business. Still, hilariously to me, all of the instructions were of this order:”Turn on your burner to low, take a pan, put in the oil, set the lid of the pan on the right side of the burner, and take a spoon and set it on the dish to the left of the pan.” I mentioned a couple of times that they really didn’t need to go into so much detail for me, but sometimes they have up to 26 people in a class, and they say that many of them can’t cook at all, so they have developed the scripts accordingly. I finally managed to stop resisting, laugh, and comply.

The food was fabulous. With Lia I cooked rourou, a taro leaf dish that was meltingly delicious. You can make it with spinach, but the young taro leaves are special. We also made mackerel in coconut cream, and cassava in coconut cream for dessert. Lia added pieces of steamed taro and cassava to our plates, and we sat down to a scrumptious lunch. It was only toward the end of the meal that I realized that I was going to cook a whole ‘nother lunch with Arti. And eat it, presumably.

Arti and I made a pumpkin curry that is going to be a standard on my table, a chicken and potato curry, and roti. I’ve tried my hand at roti before, to no good effect, but these were perfect. And then we did our best to eat all this, although I admit that, even though it was all very good, I couldn’t really do it justice.

This appeared on the table, but a picture was all I could manage. Of course I vowed never to look at food again, after all that, but the next morning we arrived in Suva, Fiji, and because there was an off-again on-again deluge I ducked into a couple of stores.

These folks seemed unperturbed by the weather and sat outside, hoping to sell their mangoes. Honestly, I have never seen so many mangoes in my life as I did in Fiji.

I almost brought home some roti flour, but the weight of my suitcase made me think better of it.

The flavors of these snacks were also very enticing, but I staunchly resisted.

I resisted these stunning dresses too, although I desperately wanted one. But I’d have to move to Fiji to have the right place to wear one, and I just don’t see that happening.

If the weather had cooperated there are so many more places I could have visited, but all in all, it was a great time. And if you’re ever in Nadi, don’t hesitate to sign up for a cooking class. Just be sure to follow their pre-class instructions to “bring your appetite!”