It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific. (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!) Happily, Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at her kitchen table (she has three lively boys). Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions. Which I invite you to do. It’s a fun interview. Enjoy!
Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.
A journey without suspense would be boring. Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown. All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning. At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers. Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient. And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave. This little suspense is completely expected. (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port. The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)
The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica. As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.” Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.
This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund. I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65. That’s the lesson for today.
It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me. First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too). So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama. In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon. This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it. He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”
Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family. I have put myself in your shoes. I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.” I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel. I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.
The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up. He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out. I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.” Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness. He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen. I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach. He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.
It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions. He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there. This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly. When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.
Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic. And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port. His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands. As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.
But, ah Panama! First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.
©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer
As published in the fall issue of the online literary journal, Sky Island Journal
Someone Else’s Poem
by Sandra Shaw Homer
You are proud
to show me your poem
about a feather-touch
some long ago,
and I am pleased to see
it speaks to me
and what is here.
Some other one
inspired your art,
but I know
the feelings are for me
now. (Who was she?
A solitary feather
on a page.)
Perhaps you are ashamed
and wish the poem
had been for me.
A gift of you,
something more of you
to know, touch, smell,
hear, kiss, taste, see.
had I been she
I would not have flown,
I would certainly have known
to stay, and now –
I would be more than
just a poem.
By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017
I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!
I was beginning to feel I would never get control of the Spanish subjunctive. It is an evil thing, ubiquitous and complex; not even one Costa Rican friend I knew used it consistently, which added to my confusion. I decided I needed to visit my old Spanish teacher Enrique in Barranquilla, Colombia, so I wrote and asked if I could come for a week of intensive work. He was delighted and offered me his guest room and bath, classes every morning and a few excursions in the afternoons.
Barranquilla was home for a time to Gabriel García Márquez , so I felt I would be treading on hallowed ground. In fact, Enrique took me to an architectural wonder of a municipal museum with an exhibit of García memorabilia. In awe, I touched the battered leather suitcase he had used when he was an itinerant bookseller, receiving rum as payment more often than not. His typewriter was there, along with poster-sized photos of other great authors he had known, and there was a multi-media show featuring well-known quotations from his books. One evening, after several obligatory visits with Enrique’s family, we went to La Cueva, the former hangout of “Gabo” and other writers, journalists and artists. There was a life-sized cardboard cutout of him standing at the entrance to the dining room, and the coasters on the bar sported lively Gabo aphorisms. Enrique snapped my picture standing next to Gabo’s ghost.
But what entranced me more than anything was Enrique’s sending me, in advance of my visit, three short stories to “contrast and compare” on the theme of love, one of which was Gabo’s Nos vemos en agosto, an unpublished story transcribed from a live reading the author had given years ago in Madrid. Gabo had intended it as part of a longer work, which he never lived to finish, and so crudely typed transcriptions circulated among the literati, until finally the Spanish magazine La Vanguardia published it at the time of Gabo’s death.
I loved this story. The minute details all led inexorably to a wildly ambiguous ending that Enrique and I puzzled over for days, without ever coming to a conclusion. I read it again and again, always finding something new – always with just a touch of the magical – and I was dying to try my hand at a good literary translation. I wrote La Vanguardia to ask how they had gotten permission to publish it post-mortem and to point me in the same direction so I could request permission to publish a translation.
It isn’t difficult to fall in love with a writer as funny and precise about the human condition and incisive in his descriptions as García Márquez. And his story Nos vemos en agosto both captivated and challenged me. There were several ways one could translate the title, for example. We meet in August? We’ll meet in August? I’ll see you in August? We’ll see each other in August? Same Time Next Year? Does it suggest a future meeting? Or simply an event in the near past? Or something that happens every year? If only the author were alive to enlighten me! This is one person I would love to sit down with and converse at length about his work.
I’m afraid this story took up more of my class-time than the subjunctive, which I had been avid to conquer. Enrique had given me lessons and homework, and I studiously spent my afternoons going over the exercises, but Nos vemos en agosto simply wiped the subjunctive out of my head. (There is nothing subjunctive about the title . . . or is there?). The subjunctive is all about things that haven’t happened. “If I were only capable of understanding it,” is a good example in English. Could the story be a fantasy? The protagonist was certainly preparing herself for one. And could the lover have been a ghost (with his Musketeer mustache and white linen suit, smelling faintly of lavender water)? Ah, Gabo, I stood next to you, I drank at your bar, ate at one of your tables, read your story over and over, and still I don’t know!
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017
I wish I could express in poetry what William Butler Yeats did so perfectly in “The Second Coming.” But even though I don’t consider myself in any way a poet, sometimes poetry is the only way I can deal with what life hands me. I think of the Yeats poem especially these days, and the recent presidential election affected me particularly, as I have been struggling with the dilemma of whether to return to the States or not.
You can find my poem, “Post November, 2016” in the online journal, “I Am Not A Silent Poet”: https://iamnotasilentpoet.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/post-november-2016-by-sandra-shaw-homer/
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” – George Orwell, “Why I Write”
In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described. It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish. Tell me if you think it works:
The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo. It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs). From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.
Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics. The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000. To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.
At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton. Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour. That’s a lot of inertia. I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.
Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned. The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port. No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean. (Neither does sewage.) Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside. With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.
In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day. This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption. The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.
Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil. As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific. He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.
In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.
Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap. How to be original? How to make the reader share in the wonder? Here’s an attempt:
I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise. I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly. It was slow in coming. First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink. The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at. I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.
Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017
I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view. I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine. See below for the link.
“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead. I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up. I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming. Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick. That’s where Grandma came to pick me up. I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along. I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ” Read more . . .
In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.
“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps.
© Sandra Shaw Homer 2017