Saturday, October 21, 2017

Field Notes: Doing our Part for the Monarchs

On my first birthday after arriving back in the states, I gifted myself the beginnings of a Butterfly Garden.  After spending weeks researching host plants, we rented a roto-tiller, raided a local plant nursery, hacked up the grass in the sunniest corner of the yard, and got it going.

(I could write a lot about the gardening ups and downs of this project, mostly along the lines of, "Oh right!  Everywhere in the world isn't western Oregon, where the dirt grows everything awesomely with no effort and the weather doesn't try to literally steam-cook your plants.")

Of course, the star of the host-plant show was supposed to be Aesclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed aka a-particularly-great-type-of-milkweed.  And as everyone (who...knows much about butterflies) knows, milkweed is the required plant for Monarch eggs and caterpillars.  No other substitute.

We couldn't find it anywhere our first growing season here, but diligent pestering of multiple nurseries got us a shipment for 2017.  We planted it in March and it did great!  We started noticing a monarch egg here and there.  Until...

The APHID and WHITE FLY APOCALYPSE!  Basically, I had never dealt with them before and didn't realize that a couple cute little yellow bugs were actually Aphis nerii, or invasive Oleander aphids, and they went from five to five hundred thousand (seemed) in a matter of weeks, sucking our four milkweeds dry and attracting parasitic wasps which took evil pleasure in picking off tiny, newly hatched monarch caterpillars as snacks after leisurely laying their eggs inside aphid larvae (which then would hatch, eat that larvae from the inside, and then leave "aphid mummies" behind after they emerged from their victims).  They are a horror movie incarnate.

As you can see, we tried to control this all with an army of ladybugs -- get rid of the aphids, get rid of the whiteflies, get rid of the parasitic wasps -- but there were just too many to handle.  We finally got them under control with a daily spraying of a water-dishsoap-rubbing alcohol mix and leaves began to slowly regenerate...

But, we thought the great wasp massacre of monarch caterpillars had taken any chance we had of helping any Monarch butterflies reach adulthood this year.  By mid-summer, we stopped checking the milkweeds except an occasional spot-spray to stop another aphid explosion, maybe once a week.

Then one day..


!!!  Without realizing it, a monarch caterpillar had made it to the fifth instar stage without us even knowing!  It's hard to miss them when they're in their final stage before pupating - they're huge and bright and stripey and horned, after all.  And we were so excited!

Close inspection found nearly twenty other caterpillar eggs and twenty hatched caterpillars in various stages of development.

It was amazing! But also, we quickly realized, way too many for our four weakened milkweeds to handle!  One caterpillar eats about 20 large milkweed leaves...there was no way we would be able to get them all enough.

We kept an eye on things and saw our relatively bushy milkweeds get down to twigs within two days.  Some of the later-stage caterpillars had gotten enough in time, but the younger ones were left trying to desperately eat through stems.

Hadrian and I had to do something!  So we medivac'd ten one morning to the local Botanical Garden in a tupperware lined with soft lambsear.  We found each of them their own large and healthy milkweed plant and wished them well.

But what about the older caterpillars that had been able to eat enough in our own garden?  We went searching for some chrysalides and found one nestled between our fence slats.  It was that gorgeous green and gold Monarchs are known for:

We kept daily watch on it for over a week and then on Saturday morning, were lucky enough to witness the chrysalis in it's brief final stage when it turns transparent and black:

Look at the wings!

Within a few hours, it had emerged and dried it wings on our fence before flying off.

WE HAD DONE IT!  Full life-cycle!

And the process is continuing.  The milkweeds are sprouting a new round of leaves after being completely eaten down and we already have ten more eggs waiting to hatch.  Here we go!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Infamous "Going to the Alhambra" Story

Taking a break on the hike up, appreciating some pomegranate sculpture, the symbol of Granada

Something you should know about visiting the Alhambra - it's very particular about tourists.  I've seen now in quite a few travel books that the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain.  I also know from our complementary copy of The Economist's Pocket World in Figures 2017 Edition that Spain has the third highest number of yearly tourist arrivals in the world (behind France and the United States).  So, put those two things together and...well...they're just very particular.

There is a very specific quota for tourists each day and you can only enter during your very very specific allotted fifteen minute window.

But beyond the quota and the timing, you have to reserve your time in a very very very particular way - via phone (now you can do it online, so hooray progress) and only with a very very very very particular suite of credit card options.  Then, they are extremely clear that if you want to pick up your ticket that you just bought over the phone, you have to bring the exact credit card you used to buy it in the first place.

Now, they didn't take our Danish Visa/Dankort card, they didn't take our American debit cards, they didn't take our German Deutsche Bank cards or our German Visa card...they almost didn't take any of our cards except our last, final holdout - an American Visa that we had filed away in our paperwork that we never used but never closed (mostly to preserve our high credit score).

Yes, I'm setting all this up for something.

Before we even left Odense for Spain, this credit card became a running joke.  When we were packing: "Did you get THE CREDIT CARD?  What high-security pocket in our backpack should we keep it in?"  When we were walking out the door: "CREDIT CARD CHECK!  Where is this MOST IMPORTANT PLASTIC RECTANGLE?"  Literally, the only reason we were bringing this random, never-used credit card was to swipe it in one random little kiosk in Granada so they would give us our Alhambra tickets that we'd reserved for our super-particular fifteen-minute entrance time and all my dreams could finally come true.

Fast forward to Granada (and many, many "Checking in on the status and location of THE credit card" jokes later), we woke up one morning, got dressed, and very excitedly began our hike to the Alhambra.  Before we left, there was one last, "Hey Paul, you got the credit card?" throw-away joke, which, oddly, Paul answered in an uncharacteristically straight way.*

Please remember that I was seven months pregnant and it was definitely a very vertically-inclined hike from the city below the bluff all the way up to the entrance at the top.  The most interesting part though was immediately noticing how different the hill was: where the city down below was clearly dry and scrubby, that very "Mediterranean/southern California/central Utah" feel, the hill to the Alhambra was green, lush, and cool.  We kept talking about how it felt like there was some kind of natural air conditioner or something (turns out that there literally was - we learned at the top that the founders of Granada had literally rerouted a river and engineered a series of lifts and pumps to get it to flow up to the top of the bluff and then wind its way back and forth back down. Then they planted out hundreds of trees and flowers over the entire hill to create this amazing oasis)

But I'm getting off the main thread here.

We finally made it to the top after about half and hour, after many breaks/"photo-ops" and we had a good 45 minutes to spare before our entrance time to the palace inside the larger Alhambra complex.  We were right on time - figured we'd get our general entrance ticket along with our specific palace entrance ticket and spend a while getting our bearings and reading up on things.

Being the travelers that we are, being the person most obsessed with seeing the Alhambra as I was, I knew exactly where to go.  I bee-lined for the bright yellow kiosks hidden behind the public restrooms (weird) and breezed through the steps.

1. Last Name - no problem
2. Reserved time - have it memorized
3. Confirmation number - bam, got it on this post-it note in my bag here
4. Credit card - "Okay, Paul.  I need the credit card now."

Casually glancing around to me, Paul pulled out his wallet and handed me our Dankort Visa.

"Haaaa ha.  Very funny, Paul.  Good one.  Now I need the real CREDIT CARD," as I put one hand on my hip and reached out the other to him, smiling.

Then I watched as his face changed rapidly from smiling to confusion to horror.

"Paul?  I need the credit card.  You know?  THE CREDIT CARD?  The American credit card?!?!  The one we've been talking about for MONTHS now all leading up to this one single moment so I can see this one single place I've been dreaming of seeing for twenty years and I only have a tiny window where I can use the ticket we reserved and the only thing I need to be able to do that is THE CREDIT CARD THAT YOU TOLD ME YOU HAD IN YOUR WALLET?????"

Now, you may think that maybe I just thought all those things and said something else.  No, I said all of those things.  With increasing panic.  And eventually tears of pure despair welling up in my eyes.

Also, have I already mentioned?  I was seven months pregnant and we were a thirty-minute hike up a mountain away from our hotel and our entrance window was in forty five minutes?  And, as you probably can guess....Paul did not have the credit card.

Well, here's the happy ending:  Paul literally sprinted down that hill, leaving me to anxiously pace around and around the public restrooms at the entrance of the Alhambra, looking at the clock every two minutes.  He managed to run to our hotel in ten minutes, grab the credit card from his bag, triple check that it was THE CREDIT CARD, run out to the main square, hail a taxi, and get that taxi back up to the entrance in thirty five minutes.

I saw him coming from the parking lot, running for his literal life, and I started up the yellow kiosk again.  He passed the credit card baton to me with ten minutes to spare before we were due at the palace inside.  The kiosk cheerfully verified our reservation, printed the ticket, and we breathlessly limped/waddled as fast as we could through the gate.

*Obvious foreshadowing

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Granada was the entire reason we went to Spain.  I'd wanted to see it since I'd first heard about its history when I was 14 years old. For some reason the whole Nazrid era and Al-Andalus, Moorish art and architecture, knowing that the renaissance began with the education and libraries of these early Muslim kingdoms -- pomegranates, oranges, the Court of the Lions, scalloped arches, geometric designs in stone -- it all seemed to center in Granada.  And the Alhambra.

We arrived after a long road-tripping day from Seville through the white hill towns of the Sierra Nevada.  After dropping our little car at the little central train station and walking thirty minutes down the Calle Gran Via de Colon, we reached the base of the hill where the Alhambra complex perched above us behind the cliffs.  We checked into our room at the very excellent and excellently located* Hotel Casa de Capitel Nazari, where we were extremely excited about the large Jacuzzi bathtub (remember, baths were scarce in Denmark, so we were always overjoyed when we traveled and lucked out with a tub).  We even took a picture, we were so stoked:

The Hotel Casa de Capitel Nazari also was just simply beautiful.  It was a connected hodgepodge of Spanish renaissance palaces - each with their own ubiquitous central open atria and the rooms' windows facing inward with their very Andalusian solid wood shutters.  Our room actually felt more like a suite - strangely shaped with step ups and downs into different, small mini-rooms: a little entryway, a bed platform, a reading nook, a dressing area with an antique wardrobe.  

But we're never ones to lounge around in our hotel - however historic and bathtubby it may be.  Our first night was spent doing our usual Rick Steves' audio city tour to give us more history and our bearings.

We started out at the 10th century stable/market where all the camel caravans congregated, through the Nazrin-era bazaar (now upscale jewelry/gold markets), visited the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella at the Cathedral, took a break to get a *real* churro with chocolate at the Plaza Bib-Rambla, and ended up wandering through the narrow streets of the Al-Andalusian Albaizin district, which felt like we had somehow made it back to Istanbul or, more correctly, that a bit of Morocco had made it up into this most southern part of Spain.

We didn't take many pictures of that first night in Granada - only three off-the-cuff snapshots done more out of habit - probably because we were so enthralled with the constant intersections we kept meeting between high Christian, deeply Islamic, and historic Jewish residents all living together, depending on the era, with remarkable cooperation or considerable hatred.  

But really, if the reason we came to Spain was to get to Granada, the reason we came to Granada was to see the Alhambra.  And we weren't going to get there until the next day.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Things I Learned from Europe

I still think about living in Europe.  All the time.  Right after we came back to the United States, most of my memories were about little things - missing my bike (vs. driving in a car everywhere), remembering American cucumbers (and how they really don't taste good to me anymore), having mixed feelings about everything being in English (easier, but also...way more boring).  Now I've transitioned a little bit and recently have been thinking about bigger personality/life-changing lessons I think I got from living in Germany and Denmark for five years.

Just sitting here on a Saturday morning, here are a few:

* Getting a deep, mind-exploding realization of how big the world is, how many many people (and entire lives) there are, and how I'm just one tiny tiny tiny tiny microscopic person.  It helped me grow a little bit out of some self-centeredness and/or self-importance that was still hanging on from adolescence.  It made me realize that even the biggest of my "life goals" I had before would still mean nothing.  That the world is like an infinite universe, and my little family is actually my world.

* The vast majority of people in the world are good -- 99%.  No matter where you go.  People are good.  We all share the same experiences, broadly speaking.  We all feel the same emotions.  Empathy and kindness are the default.  

* Stuff is dumb.  It's all so incredibly dumb - also, annoying to deal with.  Doing is the only thing that really means anything.  

* Quality is not dumb, though.  If you have to have some stuff, only have what you absolutely need and then only have the nicest one you can get.  Take pride in beautiful things - but only because they're beautiful, not because you want things.

* Time is the only thing I'll ever really own and, maybe counter-intuitively(?), the only way to use it well is to limit what you do with it and take it slow.  How else can I explain this?....  The best way to use your time is to not feel like you have to keep track of how you're using your time?  That there's never anything else more important than what you're doing right this moment?  

* Hygge.  A word without a direct translation.  Relaxation, calm, coziness, quiet, slow, warm and long intimate conversations, candles, a friend playing the guitar while everyone listens quietly, simple food, singing old songs around a fire, discussing abstract ideas with a cup of tea, sitting on a porch and listening to birds, running under a bus stop shelter and watching the rain, seeing the shadows of branches on your window -- these aren't pointless, silly, time-wasting activities.  These are the things that are everything.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Andalucia's Hill Towns, The Land of Ferdinand

Once upon a time in Spain...

We traveled by car from Seville to Granada, through the land of Ferdinand - one of my favorite children's books.  And on the way, we visited the hill town of Zahara, which, I'm pretty sure, was the model for the very first page of that little book about a peaceful, introverted bull.

Zahara is like a fairytale - isolated and absolutely untouched by sprawl.  The same cluster of whitewashed buildings zig-zagging up to the fortress on the hill as were there hundred of years ago.

I'm very proud to say that at seven months pregnant, I totally climbed that hill all the way to the top of that fortress tower.  Standing up there looking out into the impossibly blue lake (look at that picture!) and white buildings below, I was totally worth feeling like I was going to die trying to make that hike while seven months pregnant and in a dress.

We didn't stay long in Zahara - just a couple hours to climb the hill and gawk at its time-capsule-other-worldliness.  And then we were back on a road that kept winding up and up through the mountains and then back down through the tiny, hidden hill town of Grazalema.  

(Our only picture of Grazalema)

Grazalema isn't nearly as stunning to see as Zahara, but it is an adventure trying to drive a tiny tiny  manual rental car down and up through its even tinier whitewashed and completely un-signanged roads.  It was a tense five minutes, we try not to dwell on that time.  But the drive out of Grazalema to Ronda (perhaps the most "touristy" hill town) was through miles and miles of cork trees.

Cork trees!  Like in Ferdinand!  It actually took us a while (and some rifling through our guide book) to figure out they were cork trees in the first place.  I hadn't fully realized that cork is harvested from the bark or right below the bark, so we saw miles and miles of giant trees with a strip cut around their middles or all the way from half of the trunk through the larger branches, exposing the rich reddish wood beneath and it was so fascinating.  ...This is hard to explain, I'm going to go look for a picture:

Like this!  For miles and miles!  It was beautiful.

We had saved Ronda for the end 1) was just the last hill town on the way to Granada.... but 2) It was supposed to be the best one.

Mehhhhhhhhhhh Ronda.  Sure, it was an old town built up high...but just on a big bluff.  Meh.  And then its most famous draw - its medieval gorge bridge (which makes an appearance in Ferdinand!) - was completely not anywhere.  We drove literally three times all the way around that bluff with a GPS and trying to follow any signs and never saw even a tiny glimpse of anything that could possibly be that bridge.

I know it exists.  I've seen it in Ferdinand!  (And friends' travel pictures) But dag just decided to not exist for us that day.

But actually, that was totally fine because we now knew for sure that we had seen the best hill town in Andalusia, hands down - Zahara.  So we let it go and left Ronda for a final few hours through that dry Mediterranean landscape (strangely reminiscent of... central Utah?) and onward to Granada (!!).

(Where is this bridge, Ronda??)

Fairytale Zahara

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