Low Country High

Bonaire Sunset

I’m back.

Mostly.

Part of me lies at 40 feet where moments of awe and joy are with me still even after returning home late Sunday. I’ve got a raging head cold which fortunately began on the  day of our return –literally mid-air–from our “low-country” island paradise.  No worries though; honestly, my pounding head has not dampened my spirits one bit.

So….we are back from six days of scuba diving in the Caribbean;  the lovely island of Bonaire to be specific. The last time I visited this pearl was seventeen years ago.  Discovered around 1499, this tiny gem lies 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is neighbor to nearby Aruba and Curacao (together, the three of them form what are called the ABC Islands which are the western Lesser Antilles).    Boniare is roughly 24 miles long and between three and seven miles wide.  It is said that the name Bonaire is derived from the Caquetio word Bonay, which means low country.  The Caquetio, a branch of now extinct Arawak natives (indigenous peoples of South America and the Caribbean) who lived in northwestern Venezuela along the shores of Lake Maracaibo are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of  Bonaire (as well as Aruba and Curacao), arriving in dug-out canoes around 1000 A.D.   Archeological evidence of the Caquetio culture has been found in Kralendijk (Bonaire’s capital) and near the shallow, glass-like Lac Bay.   Alas, we were too consumed with scuba diving to visit the caves where rock paintings and petroglyphs from this ancient civilization are still evident.  Perhaps a third visit?

The diving, though not without challenges (namely equipment failures), was simply amazing.  However, I’ll have to admit to an irritation that nearly made me come un-done.   I completely bombed on my first day the one skill that I thought I had mastered during my pool refresher class.

Yep.  I could not clear my mask!

And yes…full disclosure….I had a panic attack.

I didn’t see that coming…..

Fortunately for me (or rather, my ego) no one witnessed the frantic, flailing red-head just of off the pier in scarcely twelve feet of water.  I couldn’t see a blasted thing through my flooded mask, so I panicked because not only is mask-clearing a necessary skill, it was one that I had thought I had pretty much mastered.  Now, moments before we are set to embark on our first boat dive to about 60-70 feet, I clearly was not prepared.

My mind was clear enough in my panic to inflate my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) full throttle (filling it with air) so that I could float on my back and chill myself out.  It took a moment or two of floating in the turquoise blue water before I got my head back on straight and tried again….and again, and again.    It wasn’t until day three of our trip that I found out my mask was–in a word–defective: Rocket-man, a skilled mask clearer, could never get it to de-fog (clear) either!  Turns out it was a brand that made the company that developed it to go belly up some seventeen years ago because, well, the mask didn’t work for folks! How I was discovering the problem now after using it all those years ago perplexes me to no end.

The issue was finally remedied by Marcos, one of the dive guides.  Heavily inked and with zero body fat, this quiet soul left his home in Venezuela some twenty years ago to live in Bonaire.  “Hugo Chavez ruined my country,” he said.   He would be correct as it certainly paved the way for the state of affairs in Venezuela today.  Marcos aches for what is happening in his home country but acknowledges that life has been infinitely better for him since leaving it.   Anyhow, he heard me complaining to Rocket-man and came to my rescue (as it pertains to me, it would be the first of two damsel-in-distress moments, but that’s for another time).   He kindly let me use another mask for the rest of the week without charging me a rental fee.  We certainly appreciated the small break as we had already racked up rental fees since we had to ditch some of our own gear which, for the record, had been serviced just before our trip and worked in the pool session but strangely malfunctioned on day one of our scuba adventure.  Go figure!

Anyhow, I practically did  somersaults of joy at sixty feet as I was finally able to see clearly all the spectacular underwater sights.  For instance, there was the vibrant orange seahorse like this fellow:

Image courtesy of DesiBucket.com

….and, there were Moray eels and Flamingo Tongues (brightly colored sea snails).  There were also pretty Parrot Fish, schools of Sergeant Majors, and beautiful Butterfly Fish as well as Angel Fish, menacing-looking Barracuda, Flounder, enormous Tarpons, Trumpet fish, and even a turtle sighting. And that’s just fish.   The dizzying variety of underwater landscape from different types of coral to sea fans, etc. …In all, simply too many spectacular beauties to recount.

For all the sea life to love there is one fish however, that while strikingly cool in appearance, is cause for a certain loathing.  It’s a fish that is causing a great deal of harm to the reef system –not to mention the pain that can be inflicted from their venomous spines.   That would be Lionfish.  These fish are not native to the lovely Caribbean waters.  They are threatening  the ecosystem in the Caribbean as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast of the U.S.   Unfortunately, we saw lots of these fish which are actually natives of the Indo-Pacific.  In fact, every time we saw a Lionfish, fellow diver, Karen–who was positively amazing at maintaining neutral buoyancy I might add–would flip the bird at it.   I’ll confess to laughing in my mask the first time she did it because… well…it’s not everyday you see someone flipping the bird underwater.

Cool but dangerous

Certainly striking in appearance, Lionfish have no natural enemies.  One of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet they are carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans and fish, including red snapper and grouper which obviously affects commercial fishing.  While it’s not entirely known how these fish wound up so far from their natural habitat it is speculated that people have been dumping these fish from home aquariums.  Now there is sanctioned hunting of Lionfish (permit required) and in 2010 the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) even initiated a campaign, “The Lionfish as Food,” to get people to eat the fish.  Apparently, though the fish as some eighteen venomous spines when properly filleted, the naturally venomous fish is safe to eat.

I’ll stick to Salmon, Tuna, and snapper thank you very much.

My words in this blog-space simply cannot capture the magnificence of what I saw….what I felt.  But when I close my eyes I can still see in surprising vividness, the sun subtly filtering through the water some forty feet above me… and there I am in a moment of quiet stillness, not affected one bit by sensory overload of a million things to see, but rather taken completely out of my head, stripped of past and future…in the now… and my soul is bursting with bliss and wonder as my body is surrounded by a school of stunningly brilliant  Blue Tang  (image from: By Tewy – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1382534).

Blue Tang

Parrot Fish

There’s more to recount of my island week to be sure.  In fact, I’m holding tight to every experience, even those moments of high anxiety.  As I sit here at my desk staring out the window bracing for another cold-front set to come our way, I’m certain dear reader that you’ll understand…. I’m in no hurry whatsoever to let go of my low-country high.

Island time bliss

 

Put A Cork In It?

We’ve got sun today and what a welcomed sight.  I’ve lived in “middle earth” now for just over two and a half years and it seems we’ve had more days of cold and gloom this winter, than usual.  Last week there was freezing rain and even a dusting of snow.   Poodle and I went for very brief walks in those freezing temps, and yes….in the rain as well.   Poodle would look mighty dapper with his blue coat but that wouldn’t last long.  You see, silly as it seems, I do wish he’d agree to a hat. My four-legged love is just not very handsome with wet-head.

This morning, like every other, we started on our customary walk down the hill.  My knees have not decided to cooperate in the cold and I confess to struggling in pain as I go and am tempted to turn back.  It’s cold at 32 degrees but the forecast promises to warm up to 50.  Keep going missy; you’ve got to move!  Despite the sun this morning my mind wandered to the land of fun-in-the-sun and swaying palm trees…Southern California.

“How I would love to be walking on the beach right about now” I say out aloud to Poodle (even if it meant limping as I am doing now).   His ears perk up as if in understanding as to what I had just said. Some days I’d swear that he is just as blue as I am and for the same reason: missing the beach, perfect weather and South Bay friends. I’m almost certain too that Poodle misses his play-dates with other poodles and his weekly crazy, all-out runs with other dogs at the dog park that was just up the street from our townhouse.

I’ve got music from Spotify flowing into my head as I walk. I’m listening to the Mood Booster playlist. It’s a particularly fitting name for a playlist and it’s one of my favorites for the gym.   A song that makes me think of coconuts and island breezes takes me back to a scuba diving adventure in Dominica, an island in the Caribbean.  Inexplicably I remember a night dive where we happened upon an octopus. It was thoroughly unexpected and even more unexpected was the fact that I found it. Yes. Moi. Imagine that! And with less than 50 dives under my weight belt!  At one point I’m sure I forgot to breathe!

These are mighty intelligent creatures

These are mighty intelligent creatures!

Night diving is not my thing. Rocket-man however loves it. And, even though this “octopus dive” was wonderfully memorable, I decided this— my fifth night dive experience— would definitely be my last. In pitch-black dark, ignorance is not bliss! I suck way too much air and shake in my wetsuit in a near-paralyzing fear. I’d much rather be bathed in the light of day when I’m underwater! Anyhow, for a good ten minutes we were absolutely mesmerized by the magnificent display of colors and textures presented to us by the octopus as it tried to get away from the prying eyes of its foreign “invaders.” Mind you, we didn’t attempt to touch her or anything of the sort; we just wanted to follow the timid, tentacled creature and capture her chameleon nature as she wardrobe-changed through a dizzying, spectacular array of colors…from turquoise to pink, to bright orange and brindle browns to marbled greys. In retrospect, this was the perfect end to my night-diving adventures. As dazzling and dramatic as our octopus dive was,  henceforth, I’d prefer to stick to broad daylight diving, thank you very much.

So imagine my thought process when this past holiday season Rocket-man and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve with our neighbors (OK…I’m a bit tardy recounting our Christmas Eve. It’s apparent that I’ve been lazy at this whole blog writing thing!). Anyhow, Mrs. T. is half-Italian and when she extended the invite several weeks before the holiday she cautioned that she prepares the traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal.

“You mean fish, right? I asked.

Yes. Fish. But not just any fish. Lots of different kinds of seafood to include the main attraction, octopus.

That hole in the middle....yep...It's the butt! It's where the ink gets expelled!

That hole in the middle….yep…It’s the butt!  The hole acts as a tubular funnel;  It’s where sepia (ink) gets expelled as a defensive weapon and, when water is forced through, propels the octopus who can travel with great speed through the water.

“Oh my!  Octopus,” I say with a hard-to-hide cringe. For a moment I’m thoroughly horrified at myself that I couldn’t contain my reaction.  Fortunately, Mrs. T. understood!

“It’s OK…I know!” she said.  “I’m the only one who will eat it. My dad and mom always have octopus on the Christmas Eve menu but my kids and husband won’t touch it. Don’t worry though, we’ll also have salmon, shrimp and fried calamari.”

“Well,” I said, relieved that I had not offended my new friend.  ”Thank you so much for the invite and… you know…you won’t have to eat octopus alone this year…I’m game to give it another try, though I cannot promise I’ll finish what is on my plate!”  I went on to tell her that I had eaten octopus many years before as a child and suffered kicks under the table–and worse, the evil eye– from my mother who made me eat it as we were guests for dinner at her friends’ house. I remember it tasted like a moldy rubber hose (not that I have ever actually eaten a moldy rubber hose mind you…) but, you get my drift. It was definitely a gag-worthy meal and I never forgot it.

Mrs. T. texts me a photo of the octopus that she plans on preparing.  My stomach does a flip.  Oh God.  I agreed to eat that?!   I had to put a name to the beast (I habit I’ve learned to do thanks to my beautiful sis!).  I call Mrs. T. to tell her what’s on my mind.  “Your octopus must have a name; it’s Octavius the Octopus!

Then, a day before our dinner I happened to come across an article in the December issue of Bon Appétit magazine. It featured an octopus recipe.  One of the sidebar notes was that chefs swear by placing a wine cork in the cooking liquid.  Many chefs freely admit that they don’t quite understand how placing a cork in the pot as the octopus cooks makes for a tender (not rubbery) octopus.  In fact, one well-known Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, uses one wine cork for every two pounds of octopus.  It could be the cork has some kind of natural tenderizing enzymes?  There seems to be little understanding on the subject.  Even a 2009 article in the Miami New Times addressed this oddity.    How strange!  I thought. I wonder if it matters if the cork comes from a bottle of red or white wine?  Intrigued, I immediately picked up the phone and called Mrs. T.

“Hey lady. Coincidentally enough, the current issue of Bon Appétit magazine has a couple of octopus recipes in it. Did you know that you’re supposed to place a wine cork in the pot along with the octopus?

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. T. My dad always does that. He doesn’t know how it tenderizes the octopus but he swears by it.”  Wow. Who would have thought there was a culinary purpose for wine corks!

I arrived early before our Christmas Eve meal was to take place.  Mrs. T. had texted early in the day that she would be cutting up Octavius around 4:30’ish if I wanted to come by early to observe.  “Absolutely!”   I did not want to miss the opportunity and was certainly curious how Mrs.. T. would go about preparing the octopus.  I can tell you, it was interesting and definitely very entertaining. We shared lots of laughs over the entire process.  It wasn’t the prettiest process to be sure; Octavius was an ugly, slimy gray blob surrounded by ice as he lay in the sink waiting to be chopped up.  A hefty pour of a wonderfully buttery Chardonnay helped me endure the scene as I watched Mrs. T. expertly cut the long tentacles into one-inch pieces.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

 

“You have to leave this part out,” Mrs. T. said as she pointed to a hole under the mantel of the octopus. This is the octopus’s butt.  “Ewwwwww,” I said nearly dissolving in giggles much like a 6-year-old, “disgusting!”  Mrs. T. laughed in agreement. Boy was I glad she had a good sense of humor over my every cringe!   Now that Octavius was reduced to a colander full of pieces, she placed them in one of her cheery, red Le Creuset pots.  She added roughly chopped onions, a small amount of water, chopped fresh Italian parsley grown in a pot on her kitchen’s windowsill, and a bay leaf.  The final touch before letting Octavius bubble along for an hour?  The wine cork.

This is a one-cork meal!

This is a one-cork meal!

 

What began as an ugly blob of grey tentacles turned into a beautifully red and deep purple-hued dish.  I have to admit that it was nothing like the rubber hose of my childhood.  It was quite delicious!  Really.  And yes, I did finish the serving on my plate.  But, I know what you’re thinking: Did I go back for seconds?

No.

It was the fried calamari and grilled salmon that captured my taste buds the most that night.  Along with the dish that I brought to share: my terrific Tiramisu.