After The Storm

For the past several years, my husband and I have chosen to celebrate our birthdays by taking a short trip together, and this year my husband chose to go to Sanibel Island. We had booked our trip for the third weekend in September long before anyone started talking about Hurricane Irma.  But when the category-five hurricane hit southwest Florida in early September, we figured our chances of celebrating my husband’s birthday on Sanibel Island ranged from small to none.  Honestly, we knew our disappointment over a cancelled trip was absolutely nothing compared to the hardship endured by those in the hurricane’s path.  The televised images of Irma’s landfall were devastating and the suffering it caused was beyond heart-breaking.

After the hurricane, we followed the news to see the extent of the damage, partly to know when we would be able to contact the resort in order to cancel our reservations.  Since Sanibel is a barrier island just fifty–some miles from Naples, which took a direct hit, we weren’t even sure if the resort would still be standing.  Both my husband and I love Sanibel Island and have visited it many times since we discovered it over thirty years ago.  It was painful to realize there was a very real possibility that the hurricane had destroyed the island, or damaged it beyond recognition.

Amazingly, Sanibel sustained very little damage from the hurricane that wreaked so much havoc on other parts of Florida and the Caribbean.  We checked the city’s official web page obsessively,  so we knew when electricity and water service was restored, when the streets and been cleared of the tangle of branches and trees, and when businesses began to reopen.  Then the resort actually called us to say they were up and running and ready for visitors.

Part of me felt guilty for even thinking of going on vacation in a state where so many people were still struggling with tremendous loss.  But we went ahead with our trip for two reasons.  One, we knew that Sanibel (like much of Florida) has an economy that is directly tied to tourism and losing that income would make it even harder to recover from the hurricane.  Secondly, both of us felt a strong need to see for ourselves that our beloved Sanibel Island really was okay.

And it was.  True, the signs of the hurricane were everywhere, from the piles of uprooted trees and torn limbs by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, to the hand-lettered “We’re Open!” signs outside many stores and restaurants.  We saw utility trucks from all over the country as workers continued to restore power to nearby communities.  And everywhere we went, people would ask each other  “How are you doing?”  “Is your power back on yet?”  “Did your house sustain much damage?”  Perfect strangers were constantly offering each other encouragement and support as they traded stories of surviving the hurricane.

IMG_3566I have always believed Sanibel Island is a beautiful place.  And this visit didn’t change my view, despite the signs of damage and the piles of debris from the storm.  Because this time, the beauty I saw wasn’t limited to the palm trees and the sandy white beaches.  This time, I saw a community coming together through hope and hard work, repairing the damage and moving forward with determination and optimistic pride.  And that was the most beautiful thing of all.

A Happy Choice

488When my husband planned a weekend getaway for my recent birthday, I was a little embarrassed to tell my friends and family exactly where we were going.  Not because there was anything embarrassing about our destination (Sanibel Island), but because whenever we get a chance to go on a vacation, our choice is usually Sanibel.  We are definitely in a bit of rut, travel-wise.

I want to explore new places and experience new cultures just as much as the next person, and I actually have a long list of places I hope to visit someday, both in the US and abroad.   We’ve been to France and  Ireland, and have had some great vacations in Charleston, Denver, Boston, Chicago, and Napa Valley.  So it’s not that we don’t enjoy vacationing anywhere but Sanibel, because we most certainly do.  It’s just that we only have a certain amount of time and money that can be devoted to travel, and Sanibel Island just happens to be our favorite destination.

Sanibel is a small barrier island of the gulf side of the Florida coast.  There’s nothing especially spectacular about it.  It doesn’t boast world-class resorts or nationally-known golf courses; it doesn’t have the sugar-white sand of the Gulf Shores area, or the exciting night life of Miami.  Most of the restaurants close by ten at night (at the latest), and although the beaches offer excellent shelling, they are also kept in their natural state.  That means the dead fish you stepped around on your first morning at the beach is still there on your last morning, only riper.

But we like the slow pace and natural beauty of the of the island.  There are no traffic lights or high-rise buildings allowed, but there are wonderful bike paths, abundant wildlife (we once saw an alligator on the beach), beautiful foliage, and friendly people.  When we cross over the causeway and catch our first sight of the island, we both feel as if we are coming home, and to a well-loved home at that.

Maybe it’s the memories of the vacations we’ve spent there with our kids that makes us love the island so much.  Or it could be the attraction of visiting somewhere so familiar that we know exactly which restaurants and stores we prefer, and which stretch of beach offers the best chance to find the shells we love to collect.  It might even be the way we feel when we sit on our balcony, watching the waves roll in and thinking, “It really doesn’t get much better than this.”

All I know is that whenever we get a few days off from our hectic schedules at home and have managed to accumulate enough Southwest Airline points for a free flight, my husband and I just naturally think, “Let’s go to Sanibel.”  That may mean we don’t ever make it to all the other places we’d like to visit, but that’s a trade-off we’re willing to make.  I think everyone needs a “happy place” in their lives, and Sanibel Island is ours.

Paradise Lost

DSC00112Sanibel Island is, hands down, my favorite place to vacation.  It’s a beautiful little island which has no high-rise buildings or traffic lights, with stunning tropical vegetation and tons of small-town charm.  I can always count on seeing lots of natural wildlife, possibly due to the nature preserve that takes up about a quarter of the island.  My husband and I first visited the island almost thirty years ago, when I was six months pregnant with my daughter, and despite having to wear a maternity swim suit that looked like a circus tent, I fell in love with Sanibel.

I have so many great memories of our family vacations on the island, where we walked the beach, collected shells, rode the miles of bike trails, and lounged by the swimming pool together.  Once, I was sitting on the screened-in patio of our condo, reading a book and sipping on my wine, when my young son came up from the pool and stood in the doorway, dripping wet and calling out for me to bring him his camera.  I asked him why, and he said there was an alligator on the beach, and he wanted to get a picture.  I told him alligators don’t go on the beach, but he assured me that some people at the pool had told him there really was an alligator down there, and could I please hurry with the camera.

So I fetched his camera and wandered back out to the patio.  I had actually picked up both my book and my glass of wine before the full implication of our conversation sunk in; that’s how relaxed I am when I’m on Sanibel.  And then of course, I ran down to beach as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me, frantically yelling “Stay away from that alligator!”   Which was a good thing, because as it turned out, there really was an alligator on the beach.

IMG_1112Even though our kids are grown up, my husband and I still enjoy Sanibel, and we just returned from a week-long visit there.  We had a wonderful time, right up to the very last day, when we noticed what looked like a thin brown line on the eastern horizon, right where the ocean meets the sky.  As we watched, the line of dark, murky water grew larger and larger, spreading across the bay toward the Sanibel beaches.

It turned out to be the result of the release of flood waters (Florida has been hit with record rainfalls recently) that had been “back pumped” into Lake Okeechobee and which were now being redirected into the Caloosahatchee River and carried into the Gulf of Mexico.  When the massive amounts of fresh water, polluted with flood debris, meets the ocean water, it causes all kinds of environmental problems such as killing fish and marine life, increasing red tide, and  temporarily turning miles and miles of beautiful ocean water a dark, oily brown.

IMG_1119I know that this has been a problem for many years, and that environmentalists and the government agencies who authorize the massive release of the lake water into the rivers and ocean are at odds with each other.  As a rule, I try not to take sides in a dispute when I don’t know all the facts, and I definitely do not know all the facts about this issue.  I am not a Florida resident and I know almost nothing about marine biology or water resource management.

But I know what I saw, and what I saw was ugly and unnatural, and deeply disturbing. I know that the destruction of the Earth’s natural beauty and delicate ecosystem is a wide-spread problem, and that we need to do a better job of caring for our fragile planet.   And nothing brought that home to me more than witnessing first-hand the pollution of the waters of my beloved Sanibel Island.

Gotta Have That

IMG_0815One of my family’s favorite vacation destinations is Sanibel Island, a beautiful spot on the gulf coast of Florida that is well-known for its beaches teeming with sea shells.  I still remember our first visit to the island, when my husband and I could barely believe the number of shells we saw on the beach and were literally scooping them up by the handful.  In later years, we became more particular about our “shelling,” ignoring the piles of plain white clam shells and scallops as we searched for the more colorful and harder to find alphabet cones, nutmegs, tulips, fighting conchs, etc.  Even so, we have brought home countless bags of shells as souvenirs of our beach vacations.  And we have reached the point where we absolutely do not need any more shells, no matter how pretty they are.

IMG_0813We have shells displayed all over our house, in jars, vases and even in a lamp.  We have given shells, and crafts made from shells, to almost everyone we know, and yet we still have several bagfuls of them sitting in a storage bin in our basement.  This means that for the last several vacations to Florida, we made the promise to ourselves that we absolutely will NOT collect shells this time.  We will “just look” at the shells as we walk the beach, but not actually pick them up.  That vow usually lasts for no more than the first twenty minutes after our feet hit the sand.  And although we have gotten better at returning many of the shells we find to the beach at the end of our vacation, we always, always, have a bag of shells that we wind up bringing home with us.

Why do we keep collecting shells that we don’t even want anymore?  I’m not exactly sure, but I’m beginning to suspect that it has something to do with the thrill of finding a “treasure,” not unlike finding a valuable antique at a garage sale.  Once my husband and I became more experienced shellers and learned how to find the rarer types of shells, each one we found became, I think, a small victory.  We would congratulate each other on finding a king’s crown or an oversized angel wing, and then eagerly go back to the search for an even nicer shell.  And of course the “good” shells we were finding had to be kept and admired, or so we believed as we were combing the beach in search of the next “shelling score.”  It wasn’t until later, after we were back home, that we would look at all our shells and wonder what in the world had come over us.

IMG_0803I believe that the desire to acquire things runs deeper in most of us than we want to believe, and possibly dates back from the days when humans were primarily hunters and gatherers. I may not have the stomach for hunting, but I’m realizing that I do have a rather strong gathering instinct, particularly when I’m naively convinced that what I’m searching for is both rare and valuable.  I may hate clutter, and I may not be comfortable owning lots of stuff, but I can get swept up in the “gotta have that” craze just the same as everybody else.  And if I’m ever silly enough to doubt that, all I have to do is go down in my basement and check out the bin holding all those bags of shells.  Which is stored right next to the bins holding the couple of hundred Beanie Babies we’ve had since the kids were little…..

Vacation Fun

480My husband and I are hoping to take a trip to Florida in a couple of weeks, as a way to celebrate his 60th birthday and to unwind from the whirlwind of our daughter’s recent wedding. Our plan is to spend the week doing exactly what we want to do, when we want to do it, which means we will probably spend lots of time walking the beach, collecting shells, and eating way too much food.  Once we get there, it should be very relaxing.  And that’s a good thing, because I know from long experience that getting there will be anything but relaxing.

We’re planning to fly to Florida, which is stressful enough all by itself.  I’m old enough to remember the days when flying was actually fun–a special treat for special occasions.  We even dressed up a bit before we went to the airport.  But these days, between the necessary security measures and the tiny seats on crowded planes, flying is more like visiting someone in jail and then boarding a Greyhound bus. And I swear I have seen some people in the airport wearing pajamas.

But in my family, the stress begins long before we even get to the airport.  My husband and I are both terrific worriers, and I have come to realize that one of my husband’s main worries in life is missing his plane.  The night before we leave for a trip, we usually go to bed rather late, what with all the packing, last minute instructions for dog and house sitter, etc.  Throughout the night, we wake up at least once an hour from the worry that we might oversleep (because it really is possible that the alarm clock could pick that particular night to break down).

Then we get up bright and early, rush through our morning showers, throw our suitcases in the car and head for the airport.  On the drive there, my husband curses at every single red light and mutters dark comments under his breath about all the other people who are inconsiderate enough to be out driving on the streets when we have a plane to catch.  When we finally reach the airport, he drops me off at the curb to check in our two huge and heavy suitcases by myself while he parks the car, because “it’s quicker that way.”

We usually meet up again at the security line, where he spends the whole time trying to estimate how long it will take us to get through the security check point and whether or not we will have to run for our gate once we are through it.  He removes his belt, shoes, and watch while waiting in line just to save time.  And once we are finally through security, we anxiously check the departure time for our flight and realize we have at least two hours to kill before boarding time.  That’s when I buy a magazine and a Diet Coke and settle in for a nice long wait.  It’s our vacation routine, and I know better than to complain about it.

IMG_0703Because I know there is a reason for my husband’s madness.  Once we scheduled a vacation to Florida on January 1st, and our flight was supposed to leave at 8:45 in the morning.  That was the one time I actually tried to talk my husband into waiting a bit before we went to the airport, because I figured very few other people were going to be flying early on the morning after New Year’s Eve.  Luckily, I lost that argument, because when we arrived at the airport at 6:15 in the morning, we were greeted by the sight of a check-in line that stretched out the door, and a security line that snaked back and forth across the lobby three times.

As we stood in line, people all around us were complaining about how they were missing their flights, but we, for once, were calm.  We knew we had gotten there early enough to easily make our flight, despite the long lines.  My husband was vindicated, and I was confident that I would have time to buy my Diet Coke once we got through security.  Sometimes excessive worrying pays off.