Tag Archives: Suellen Zima

A Whale of a Tale – Baja California, Mexico

I've made it once again to another place where I know there are whales. But I've never been able to actually see one in the wild. The day is beautiful – warm and sunny. The large lagoon is quite pretty with its fringe of white sand dunes. As the boat skips over the waves with the sea air and the wind in my face, I can enjoy this. But I hope this will be my time to see a whale.

Can that be a whale? Yes, I see a mass in the water spouting its air through its two blowholes. One of the twelve passengers on our small boat shouts, "There's one". Another whale is lifting its huge head out of the water spyhopping, like in the picture I put over the bathroom sink and looked at every day for a year.

I'm seeing whales – for real – in the wild! They're huge and they glide by silently, without even the tiniest splash. I enjoy the way they are at one with the water. How I wish I could take in 360 degrees with my eyes. I hate to miss any chance to see them. I'm taking pictures even though I know I'm too far away to get a decent shot.

Is that – yes, it's a baby swimming beside its mother. A 1,500-pound baby is so adorable! After the 5,000 mile migration from the Arctic to Baja California, Mexico, then delivering the big bundle of joy, how can the mother produce 50 gallons of milk a day? And she hasn't even eaten since she left the Arctic months ago. Nature's adaptations defy logic.

I think – yes, that baby has just fallen or intentionally tumbled off mom's back. The tail is so tiny and cute compared to mom's. Wish I had been fast enough to get a shot of that. They said there were 1,500 gray whales in this lagoon at the last count only a week ago. How wonderful to be hanging out on a sunny day in the company of these amazing creatures.

With the boat's motor off, the silence is lovely, punctuated only by excited shouts of "There's one". But no, it's not really so silent. I've never heard such a sound in a sea before. I can actually hear the whales breathing all around me. I know it's the whales that are breathing, but I feel the water, the sea itself, is alive in a way I've never experienced before.

We begin to distinguish the footprints of the whale – flat areas on the sea where they've gone down. I know that sometimes the whales will come very close to the boats. I'd like that, but if it doesn't happen, I feel content being in their company, inhabiting the same place on a warm, sunny day.

Ohhhh, my god! There's one right next to our boat. It seems to go on forever, like watching a freight train roll by. But it's going by so slowly, so intentionally slowly. I am trying to digest what I've seen when someone says, "It's still down there". I can see the mottled barnacle-encrusted bulk, distinct fins. It's going under the boat. I rush the short distance to the other side to watch it come up again and roll over ever so gently. Someone from the boat puts out her hand and touches it as it glides by.

Now everyone wants the chance to touch it. But this one stays tantilizingly out of reach. "It's too close," exclaims a photographer who no longer needs a zoom lens.

Its eye! I want to see her eye! Now we know "it" is a "she" because of the two slits we saw when she went by on her back. She's much too big to be a baby; we don't see a baby around her. She has come to play with us. It's true. She actually wants to be with us. Why else does she follow our boat?

She can hold her tail still in the air! I didn't know whales could do that. It looks like a huge flower growing out of the sea. With the backdrop of the blue sky, blue-green water and the white sand dunes, it is a perfect picture. Hope the photographer got it. But I have it in my memory, just in case. Her tail is very distinctive because there is a rather large half-moon bite out of it. Wonder what tail tales she could tell us.

How beautiful! She's a ballet dancer too. What an exquisite slow motion unfolding of her tail as she dives beneath the surface. Those are the same powerful flukes once used in self-defense when they were called "devil fish" in the sad days of whaling. We are in the same Scammon's Lagoon, named for the captain who turned the waters deadly red from the whales' blood.

What's she doing with her tail now? She's swirling the water. She's actually splashing us – not enough to hurt us, just enough to hear us gaily laughing. How honored I feel that she wants to play with us mere mortals after all the terrible things we have done to her kin and their home, the ocean. One flip of her massive fluke could easily destroy our boat and us. But the furthest emotion from my mind is fear. I am thrilled, fascinated, reverent.

Now I must see her eye. It's hard to find among the barnacles. Even when her huge head comes out to spyhop so close to the boat, I still can't find the eye. And then she passes by – and I see it. She's not looking at me, but still I feel a jolt of pure joy go through me. It is magical. It is mystical. It is the most incredible single moment of my life!

I relax. I have seen a whale's eye. But I continue to dash from side to side. What's that? Someone is handing me a box lunch. I don't want to eat. I want to play some more with the two whales who have befriended us. Oh no! The boatman has started the engine. We're leaving this idyllic spot. When I look back, our whale is holding her tail with the half-moon bite up in the air. I'm sure she's saying goodbye, and I want to cry. I bid her namaste, the boat picks up speed.

I have finally seen whales in the wild and I have done something even better. I have played with whales and seen the eye of one. Many years ago, I re-named myself Zima – a word I adapted from the Swahili mzima, meaning whole or well. I have never been more mzima than I am today.

This is an excerpt from Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird. You can also the book here.

Iceland: Scarred Beauty

Every manner of nature's violence has created Iceland's beauty. Gashed, slashed, ripped, burned, scorched – Iceland's incredible beauty stands before the visitor's eyes and continues to change as we watch. Icebergs melt and new icebergs are calved, rivers change course and sometimes wreak havoc along the way, volcanoes erupt in violent spasms. Subdued and dominated by man in most of the world, nature reigns supreme in Iceland, and people must deal with it.

Sitting at almost the top of the world, Iceland is overlooked by many tourists. Yet, 300,000 will stop by this year, just about equaling the number of residents. Most will visit in the summer when the 24-hour light, green grasses and comfortable temperatures (50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit) are the norm.

Hearty European hikers come like turtles, carrying their camping equipment on their backs. Wealthier tourists have a choice of many fine accommodations and restaurants, while the poorer ones make do in a number of well-run hostelries that have cooking facilities. Some destinations are accessible by rental car, bus service, tours and domestic flights.

Even with what are bound to be many cloudy and rainy days, the often staggering beauty of Iceland is intense. Waterfalls cascade, rivers, streams and brooks gush or meander, green crawls up the hills and mountains luxuriating in 24 hours a day of summer light. Fog lends atmosphere during walks along Vik's beach and the Iceberg Lagoon at Jokulsarlon.

For those fortunate enough to understand, Iceland is an open textbook on volcanoes, glaciers, tectonic plates, wildflowers and eighty varieties of nesting birds. Tortured landscapes, black sand, and vast lava fields show the power of nature; much more is hidden underground.

Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge. The spreading of the Atlantic is actually visible where the land is being literally ripped apart. Thingvellir is a remarkable example of the North American plate and the European plate pulling away from one another. In essence, you are standing on no-man's land in between those two plates. And, in another part of Iceland near Lake Myvatn, I trod where the astronauts come to practice walking on the moon.

Water conservation is necessary in a large part of our world, making a stark contrast to Iceland where water runs abundantly above ground, and underground. Not only is the air pure, but cool drinking water comes pristine-pure directly from the earth. Geothermally heated water is another of nature's gift to Iceland, providing hot water for showers and home heating.

Rich in water, both salt and fresh, Iceland is also rich in the bounties that water brings. From abundant fishing, which is the financial mainstay of Iceland, to the uplifting beauty of its waterways, to the freshness and cleanliness water brings with it, to the simple entertainment of an evening listening to the waterfalls making their way to the sea, Iceland is indeed fortunate.

This seemingly endless supply of water has opened up a controversy in today's Iceland. Electricity is a valuable commodity. Being able to produce electricity cheaply, Iceland has taken the huge step of agreeing for the first time to sell electricity to a foreign country to fuel an aluminum smelter plant. This aluminum smelter plant will bring with it not only jobs, but also something Iceland is not used to – pollution. Is it opening Pandora's box to make money in ways harmful to the natural environment?

Iceland is a colorful place. Especially in the summer, the various blues of the water, the fragile and courageous wildflowers, and the luscious greens of the vegetation stand out even though trees don't. All the trees, mostly low birch trees, were felled long ago by early settlers. There are attempts to re-forest, but it's a slow process. A very impressive exception is a true outdoor botanical garden in Akureyri. From a humble opening in 1912 by a local women's group, this amazing garden with mature trees and plants from around the world has flourished only miles from the Arctic Circle. Determination and careful tending still make it grow and bloom.

Among the vibrant summer wildflowers, Icelandic horses, sheep, and multi-colored cows graze peacefully up and down the hillsides. During all seasons, vividly colored houses and farmhouses are a welcome sight. In the darker fall and winter, the aurora borealis thrills the eye as it splashes color across the sky.

Iceland has the feel of the countryside in its old-time friendliness, unspoiled air and water, lack of crime, and low population. However, Iceland is completely modern and high tech. Cell phones, computers, modern medicine, and imported goods from all over the world are the norm. Coming from a storytelling culture, Icelanders are rightfully proud of close to 100% literacy. Education is highly valued and available. Icelandic is the language of Iceland and most Icelanders are bilingual, learning English early in their school years. Many are multilingual in Scandinavian and European languages.

Icelanders work hard and pay high taxes, but receive a lot for their tax money. Poverty in recent times has not been a problem for the vast majority. However, it is being seen and felt very recently along with the new phenomenon of unemployment. Also new are the larger numbers of immigrants and refugees than Iceland has seen before. There are now Bosnians, Thais, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, etc. in their communities. Icelanders all know and are proud of their genealogy, which has, until recently, been rather pure and limited. Future Icelanders will not fit the blond, white-skinned image and will speak Icelandic in a variety of accents.

Long after I left, visions of beautifully blond children, shaggy and sturdy Icelandic horses, sheep dotting unbelievable landscapes, basalt rock columns and lava-tossed fields, pink and delicious salmon, yummy breads and creamed soups, the colorful puffins, the 360 degree panoramas that no photo can capture still dance in my head. I miss the alive, breathing nature, the places where torture and beauty are one.

This is an excerpt from the book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird. You can also buy the book here.

Changing China in 2007 – Asia

There's a sophisticated supermarket around the corner from where I'm staying that's filled with things mostly far healthier and fresher than in an American market. But the presence of this market doesn't preclude numerous mom and pop vendors along the way. A pretty walkway placed slightly lower than the street where the cars go, follows a smudgy-brown river. It offers a calm, rural feeling sandwiched in between one major super crowded thoroughfare, and a very narrow street from the "old days" that leads to a smaller alleyway housing a noisy school, a huge live fish and dead meat market, small factories, and tiny shops wedged in, selling very cheap household goods. The streets and alleys of China are much more alive than the streets of America. The sounds, smells, the energy of motion are more vibrant too.

I hadn't been back in China for three years. I expected many changes; China has been barreling along in modernization and money. It's a far happier place than when I first arrived in Hangzhou in 1988. This was my 16th visit since then, always catching up with the lives of my former students turned friends. Many of them now drive cars to work in their own businesses. Hope, progress, enough food, and more money exist in Zhejiang Province where Hangzhou is located.

Unfortunately, as the economy grows, so do corruption, bribery, dishonesty and the need for connections. Huge gaps are splitting China. The majority of the country's poor are, in fact, poorer than before because the government no longer provides basic needs like housing, schooling and medical care. The rich, the super rich, the newly rich, the poor, the desperately poor – define the China of 2007.

I noticed a difference in the air in Hangzhou. In 2004, I felt incredible energy, mingled with a scent of desperation, as if all the good fortune might slip away as in a dream. But today, in 2007, I sense confidence in the air; the booming economy is not just a dream. There is a more relaxed atmosphere and time to enjoy what the people have accomplished.

China – on the move
The parents of my former students, now mostly retired (usually 60 for men and 55 for women), live in previously unheard-of luxury. They spend their days contentedly playing with their pampered grandchild, doing tai chi outdoors, and exercising on the metal equipment that colorfully lines the parks and apartment complexes. Sometimes they travel to parts of China or the world they never expected to see. These parents were the young adults of the tragic Cultural Revolution that shook China to its core. These are the parents who often starved, were relocated involuntarily to remote rural parts of China, and later did whatever they could to feed their children enough rice to survive.

I watched a child at breakfast whose parents kept offering her good healthy food. She took a miniscule bite of one thing and then refused more. So, mama offered her another tempting morsel. Little luck getting her to eat that. On to yet another possibility to tempt her. One friend, now 31, mused that his new son would never be able to believe there was a China of no food and no toys.

The one-child policy, implemented around 1979, has created many imbalances. The male population exceeds the females who were aborted, sold, or sent abroad for adoption. Now both parents and four grandparents dote on this one heir, producing a spoiled child, but also one who has the burden of being the only child who must succeed.

The modern Carrefour department store from France has arrived in Hangzhou, bringing a tantalizing array of new western foods in flashy packaging in the supermarket section. These products are quite expensive; Asian food is inexpensive. Some clerks literally scream out their bargains to attract customers to try a taste of their wares. The checkout clerks are agonizingly slow checking out customers, even though the scanners are modern.

The Internet room open to the public is the usual dingy, dark, smoke-filled place I remember from earlier years. Although using a computer is extremely cheap, the keys of my computer stick, mostly due to the grime.

The grass is green in Hangzhou's parks, with officials on duty to yell at people who dare to cross the line and actually walk on the green grass. West Lake seems more beautiful than ever, and is definitely cleaner.

I came from a country of flab to a country of short, thin people. Unfortunately, some of those cute little figures of young girls are often clad in skin tight jeans. Unlike the earlier days, cigarettes have become the accessory of choice for these girls. The older people are still somberly dressed, but multicolors adorn the rest. My colorful clothes cause stares, probably because I'm western, past the age when I should be wearing colors, and I'm more rotund than 99% of the Chinese population.

Being a pedestrian or a passenger in a car is particularly terrifying these days. There are many brightly painted pedestrian walkways, but cars don't pay them much mind. Pedestrians must tread very, very carefully. China has more cars than ever on the roads now. Imagine a place where millions of drivers have only recently earned a driver's license. However, lack of experience doesn't relate to lack of confidence. They zip in, out and around, taking wider turns than big buses do. A warning honk seems to precede cutting in front of or around another car or pedestrian. I saw some accidents, but remarkably fewer than I expected.

Seat belts in the front seat appear to be optional and for the fainthearted, except on highways where the seatbelt law is enforced. The back seat is a seatbelt-less zone where children freely wander from side to side. Yes, there are traffic laws, but they're considered merely suggestions, unless there's a policeman around. Double parking and U-turns abound.

Narrow alleyways through apartment complexes were never meant to accommodate cars, but they have no choice; prosperous residents now have cars, but no parking spaces. My friend parked on one side of a tiny alley; and another car parked along the other side of the skinny alley. I remarked that even though both cars were legally parked, no one else could get through. She summed up the Chinese approach quite simply, "We don't care".

With bright headlights glaring at night, lane lines considered irrelevant, cell phones almost always in hand, and an abundance of highly dangerous rotary intersections – China is literally on the move.

I returned at this time to Hangzhou to have a 65th birthday banquet with my Hangzhou friends. For those four hours, everything was perfect! Forty loving friends came to celebrate with me. They assured me I hadn't aged a bit in all the 19 years we had known one another. I happily gave out copies of my newly published book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, much of it about my adventures in China. When giving my speech expressing my thanks to them for being a meaningful part of my life, I looked out upon them and the variety of flashing cameras, and I felt like a true star who had accomplished a great feat in building a solid bridge between these people and I across miles and cultures.

Birthday cake culture is somewhat different in China from the U.S. Mine was colorful and adorned with pieces of fresh fruit. I had the chance to eat four birthday cakes while I was in China. While each looked different, they tasted quite similar; vanilla cake and real cream instead of sugary frosting. A popular variation on birthday candles is one large plastic flower that ignites in a mighty flame and then pops open to reveal a circle of small lit candles. The flower then begins to play the familiar music to "Happy Birthday to you". The melody plays on and on and on and on. There's no way to turn it off.

My wonderful adventures in China ended, unfortunately, with a misadventure. Among the many changes in China, some things remain the same. China is very dark at night. I use a small flashlight going up unlit staircases in apartment buildings. However, I neglected to use a flashlight outdoors. It is quite common for sidewalks to change height. While walking to a friend's apartment, I fell on my knee when the sidewalk dipped several inches. My first thought was to put ice on it, but Chinese families don't usually have ice. Their freezers, if used at all, are only filled with ice cream bars. So, I put ice cream bars on my knee to keep down the swelling. No matter how many times I've been to China, it's never been boring or predictable.

You can more about the author's book at this link.