Water, water

Last week, Ethan Zuckerman wrote an enlightened post about Fiji Water, and tonight I finally got around to reading the Fast Company article that prompted his post (I subscribed to Fast Company a few weeks back, and the first issue was in pile of mail when I got home yesterday): Message in a Bottle by Charles Fishman. I urge you to read this, too.

I’ll admit I’ve purchased and savored my share of Fiji Water over the last few years. I don’t often buy bottled water — I don’t drink much water, and I usually just find the nearest water fountain or a glass of tapwater — but when I do, I search out Fiji Water.

I have an affinity for that water, for it connects me to my time on Paama Island in the Republic of Vanuatu. During my Peace Corps service on that island, whenever I’d hike up and over to the east side, I could gaze out over the wide Pacific, and if I’d paddled away from Paama, past Lopevi volcano and eastward, the next stop would be Viti Levu Island, Fiji. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I was gazing in that direction, the Fiji Water bottling operation was just getting underway.

The water we drank on Liro was rainwater collected in a large cistern in the middle of the village, and we filled our bottles a few times each day (ignoring the occasional mosquito larvae). Halfway through our service, we paid a man to build a cement catchment behind our house, our own supply of water that would also help supply the growing school we served. The project was delayed when Avok, the carpenter, got a bad case of malaria. (Read this new National Geographic feature on malaria.)

I’ve thought about water a lot. Exactly 15 years ago, just out of college and soon to be headed to Hawaii, I holed up in the DeKalb Public Library for a few nights, researching water politics of the Middle East and predictions for the role of water in the 21st century. Erin laughed at me at the time, but came to understand.

In Hawaii, water was everywhere. When I wasn’t out on a surfboard or bobbing in the swimming pool, I was enjoying the delicious water that’s taken from the Oahu aquifers.

Today, with climate change worries, water is an important topic. NPR’s Richard Harris had two good reports today about drought in Arizona (here and here), and in New York, the health commissioner wants more people to drink tap water.

Anyway, after reading Fishman’s article, I’ll be buying less bottled water — an infrequent bottle of Fiji Water for memories of the South Pacific, and to support the locals there — and drinking more of the free stuff at my easy disposal. You?

All China Daily

Seems it’s time to focus on that country across the ocean: China is the subject of a special issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and in the June 2007 National Geographic there’s this great article about how quickly one of China’s boomtowns is growing; former Peace Corps Volunteer Peter Hessler, who wrote that article, also wrote a fantastic article about the great walls of China for the New Yorker, Walking the Wall.

There’s also been quite a bit of coverage in the newspapers about the poisons and toxins that are making their way from China to the U.S. in the multitude of products coming from that country. An important story. Keep in mind that a hundred years ago, our country produced dangerous foodstuffs and consumer products. Then government regulation and oversight kicked in. China’s got the same rules, but is having trouble enforcing them. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for that, though.

Corner of paradise

Sunday evening photo blogging:

The patio of the St. Croix house in Carlton Estate

A few days before I turned 13, my family moved from Idaho to St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. After a couple of months in a cramped apartment over a bank in Frederiksted, we moved to a big house in Carlton Estate. Around the house were acres of sometimes-green grass that I tended with a riding mower that often stopped until I crawled beneath it and reattached the belts. My brothers and I spent a lot of time climbing the trees in the back, gathering limes and mangoes and building forts.

When I wasn’t on the mower or in the trees, I was usually on the back porch, sitting at the table (it’s my grandmother sitting at the table in this photo, I think) or in one of the chairs reading a novel about submarine warfare or a thick James Clavell epic. I read voraciously on that porch, and I can still remember how my back would stick to the plastic cushions but the rest of my would be cooled by the tradewinds sweeping the island.

I have a fondness for reading novels in the tropics. Then again, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have picked up that nugget.

The Spring 2007 issue of Endeavors hit my mailbox today. “Generally, research is about pursuing new knowledge, not about taking a stand,” writes the editor, Neil Caudle [he was a reviewer for my master’s thesis reporting project], in a short editor’s column that mentions his father’s dying of emphysema. The magazine includes an article by Mark Derewicz about smoking: Facing Facts: How research and activism can steer kids away from cigarettes.

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Guest blogging by

As guest blogger for the week, it’s nice to be on the same page as mistersugar. Because he’s one of the most avid readers I know, he may appreciate this tale.

I live in the Big Bend region of rural Far West Texas, in the state’s largest county, at a spot called Calamity Creek. Big skies, few people. The nearby towns are Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis and Marathon. Add up all four towns and we still don’t reach 10,000 – even on our tippy-toes.

I serve on the board of a local library, which is raising funds to build a new facility to replace the little cottage that houses it. The other day, an old man from the senior center walked in. He announced he’d never been in a library and had only read one book in his life (the Bible), but he wanted to try another. The librarian gave him Texas, by James Michener.

Since he was in a library, he thought the proper thing to do was to sit down and read. And that’s what he did, page by page – more than 1,500 of them. He came into the library in the morning, left in the evening and said very little.

A few days later, he finished Texas and returned it to the librarian. “That was a good story,” he said. “This Michener fellow ought to write another.”

The storyteller

The May 2007 Wired arrived today. I only recently subscribed to this technology magazine, just as the magazine got a new, muddled design. Anyway, in this latest issue, Brian K. Vaughan gets recognized with a Rave Award (not online yet, but presumably soon here).

Ruhlman's menu for storytelling

Holy cow, what a great book — once I’d started reading Michael Ruhlman’s , I couldn’t put it down. There’s a section of the book all about Michael Symon and his wonderful Lola Bistro in Cleveland; Erin and I ate there once when we got back from Vanuatu.

Yesterday I was into the section about Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, and was supremely jealous of Michael as he described his time shadowing Keller and the ur-talented chefs that work in that phenomenal California restaurant.

I reached the final page at midnight last night, and I’ve found inspirtion in Michael’s storytelling (he once told me he starts writing early each morning and doesn’t stop for the day until he’s written at least 1600 words) and Keller’s striving for perfection. Of course, I botched a simple pan of pork sausage links this morning.

Michael’s got some gig at The Chef’s Garden tonight. That’s a farm in the shadow of Erin’s grandfather’s farm in Huron, Ohio, and Erin’s mom, Joanne, and I have long talked about making a visit to Farmer Jones.

In the next few days, I hope to negotiate a BlogTogether food blogging event to be headlined by Michael this summer. Stay tuned. And do yourself a favor — pick up The Soul of a Chef. Find out more about his books and read his blog at Rhulman.com.

Birthday candles

37 tomorrow. Feels like it will be a good age for me, although today I’m still dragging, low on energy and getting over a couple of days of grumpiness. I’m thinking these are lingering symptoms of the virus I fought last week.

Admittedly, I’ve been in a lull since the science blogging conference in January. My list of tasks and projects and activities is still as ambitious as ever, but none of these have sparked a fire yet. I’m not depressed. Just chilled.

I needed this time to slow down — I’m reading more, and spending more time with my daughters. Today I finished reading The Shark God, an excellent book about myth and magic in Melanesia. Tomorrow, I think I’ll dig into Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef (and maybe that will light a fire under my butt to get the food blogging series planned).

Torrid tales from Alex

On Sunday, many hours after it should have been delivered, the NYTimes arrived in the driveway, just about the time I was briefly off the couch and somewhat coherent. I’d already read Frank Rich’s column online, and I didn’t have much left in me, so I grabbed the book section, turned to the table of contents, and recognized a name: Alexander Frater.

Turns out Alex has a new book of his travel writings, . Hmm, I thought, I wonder if he writes about Paama.

Today, walking across campus, I stopped into the Bulls Head Bookshop to ask that they order a copy of the book for me; they had one on the shelf, so I purchased that and, even before I could find my way out of the still-under-construction Student Stores, I was scanning the chapter called “Grandfather’s Presbytery” where, lo and behold, I see my name and Erin’s name:

A silence fell. Then, during my own stumbling speech, I spotted a young white couple in the crowd, and over the pawpaw and biscuits met Anton and Erin Zuiker, Peace Corps volunteers from Ohio. Anton, with clever aristocratic features and a gold earring, had edited a successful Cleveland magazine; now he worked as a teacher while Erin, dark-haired and pretty, managed Liro’s clinic. He said, “For the new church celebrations they re-enacted your grandparents’ arrival. I was Maurice and Erin was Janie, we were on the beach wearing old costumes. Did you know they were led here by a white bird?”

I did not. But did they share my bewilderment at the stubborn way Paama clung to their memory?

He shrugged. “It can get a bit heavy.”

Alex was back on the island to visit the churches that his grandfather, Maurice Frater, had buillt as Paama’s first missionary. (Speaking of missionaries in Vanuatu, I’m nearly finished with the excellent book . More on that when I finish it.) Alex also wrote about his childhood in Vanuatu in the fantastic book Chasing the Monsoon, which I read and blogged back in 2003.

Later in that chapter, Alex relates his trip across the water to Lopevi:

At Donald Mail’s store I ran into Anton. Had he and Erin ever been to Lopevi? He shook his head. “Want to come? In about an hour?”

“Erin had dengue fever a while back. She’s not feeling so great today. And Lopevi’s been pretty restless these past few weeks. Noisy, smoking like crazy.” He paid for his loaf and grinned. “But hey, why not? Sure, I’ll come. Love to.”

And that trip was awesome. Here’s an excerpt from my journal that day (as it happens, marked by a simple business card that proclaims “Richard Gildenmeister, Book General”; see the previous entry to understand the serendipity of that):

17 October 1998 Yesterday was an extraordinary day. I woke at 5:30 to prepare for a day trip to Lopevi Volcano with Alex Frater. He’s the grandson of Paama’s first missionary, Maurice Frater. Alex came to Paama on Thursday in the midst of his island hopping — he’s just finished his stint at the London Sunday Observer, where he was the chief travel correspondent. Now he’s to write a book or two: he decided on his last visit to Paama, in 1980, that he would go ashore on Lopevi and so yesterday he hired Enock (in Mathias’s boat) to ferry us across the channel.

The second I stepped foot on the black-sand beach at Lopevi, I decided that I must return, with Erin, to camp alone on the Volcano. That island is amazing — lush, lonely, with only natural sounds. The lava flows are spectacular, deep, black, obtrusive. Above, at the crater, whisps of smoke seep over the lower edge over the rim; from the bush, the summit is mostly hidden.

Another boat was the first to Lopevi. A group from Epi Island had arrived Thursday for a week of yam planting. Fortunately, the men of that group were able to give us a tour of the empty villages, now just a few structures and a handful of stumps or rotting posts marking a former fence, or church, or nakamal. Nobody lives on Lopevi. Occassionally, farming parties camp at the kastom bamboo houses. One of the men talked of putting a fish cannery on the island, but the volcano’s violent history will no doubt block that.

What pulls me to Lopevi is the solitude — this island could be my best chance for a seclusion most people (and Hollywood) only dream about. I want to return.

Alex came to our house for breakfast the next morning, and he listened to us talk about Vanuatu culture, politics and food. “A journalist, he had eloquent and precise questions,” and he regaled us with his tale of the famous New Yorker fact checking department, which had called an entomologist to verify the exact number of ants that would have been crushed by Alex’s boot, as he had off-handedly described in one of his pieces for that magazine.

When we left Vanuatu the next year, we stopped in on Alex at his London flat, where he presented us with a signed copy of Chasing the Monsoon.

Now I can’t wait to take a tour of the torrid zone with Alex again.

Weekly strength

Walking back to the office this afternoon after a visit to Locopops, I grabbed a copy of the Independent, the Triangle’s free newsweekly (when I first moved down here, there was a second paper, the Spectator, but that paper was subsumed into the Indy).

I grab the Indy every week, and each time I reach into the newsbox for the paper, I have this rush of satisfaction, knowing I’m about to hold a treasure. For each issue of the Indy, like the other newsweeklies I’ve encountered, is a wonderful mix of news and commentary and comprehensive cultural calendar listings.

In Hawaii, I practically ran out each Thursday to grab the Honoulu Weekly, often taking back a stack so I could pass it out to my coworkers. Riding around Oahu on The Bus, I pored through the paper, planning my week’s activities around the listings of concerts, hikes in the pali and movies at the Academy of Arts.

Earlier, during college, it was the short-lived but influential Cleveland Edition — it’s where I first encountered the great writing of John Ettorre, who would mentor me through a couple years of my own editing of a newsweekly (the Carroll News) and would then become my friend.

When I hold the Indy each week, I feel the connection to those papers, those places, those times.

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Written by Anton Zuiker since July 2000
Why mistersugar? Why a pig?

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