Saturday, February 25, 2012


 Half-hour acrylic painting-sketch of Antillean Palm Swifts. They sometimes nest in holes burrowed out out of dead palm trunks.

 More sketches of palms and swifts, including the sketch I based the painting off of.

Yesterday I hacked a half-mature coconut from a tree that was bent over a stream. The meat was soft and I could pull it out with my fingers. Note the unprofessionally mauled coconut and associated shrapnel. I need to buy a sharpening file, but I also need practice.

I've observed three different ways to get a coconuts from the trees in the Dominican Republic:

(1) Climb the tree. This involves putting one's bare feet flat against the tree and monkey-walking up it with one's hands pulling oneself towards the tree. Even the most spry young tree-climbers get tired arms partway up the tallest trees. At that point (or maybe it's where the tree is narrow enough), they wrap their legs around the tree like you do when climbing a rope. Then they heave themselves up the tree in great hauling movements, about 12 inches at a time, slapping their body against the trunk and holding on tightly after each heave. 

I've only seen this done by young adults, children and teenagers. More often than not, they look a little freaked out when they're almost to the top but not yet able to reach the palm fronds and pull themselves to a comfortable position.

(2) Cut long poles and poke the coconuts out of the tree while standing on the ground. Sometimes this involves strapping three or four long poles together to poke into the tallest trees. It works best if you have a Y-shape cut at the end of the top pole, to catch the stem of the coco and push it upwards until it breaks.

(3) Wait until the cocos hit the ground.

I'd like to do number (1), but only on small (10'-15') trees. I love climbing but I'm afraid of heights. I started climbing a short tree a couple days ago, but chickened out and went for option (2) instead, slicing a pole out of a nearby sapling thicket. (I could see that I wasn't the only one who had done this. Lots of same-sized saplings had already been cut from the same thicket.) I got a couple nice young coconuts, filled with sweet water.

The advantage to option (3) is that when cocos fall off a tree, the meat inside is nice and solid. The problem is that I'm competing against every other Dominican to get these cocos. There's no way you're going to find a fallen coconut within 15 feet of a trail - it will have been long-picked over. Case in point - five minutes after I plucked a coco from the tree I photographed, a man came over, cut all the rest down, and took them away.

So from now on I have to put on shoes and tromp through the bush like the rest of the Dominican men, looking for those big mean brown cocos. I think the trick might be to go out the morning after a big windstorm and some have blown off the trees.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

quiero el leche

"I Want the Milk"

I bought a machete yesterday. Today I climb a small coconut tree and get the milk and the meat of the coconut.

Yo compre un machete ayer. Hoy yo subo un arbol de coco pequeno y obteno le leche y le carne de coco. 

I'm sure the process will be about as smooth as my Spanish is.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

buddhism, physics, art

yesterday's sketches

This blog is a bit of an explanation of my note on the above sketches. Apologies if this comes across as narcissistic. My intention with this blog is to speak my thoughts honestly, so occasionally I suppose it's going to get personal and maybe not interesting to a whole lot of people. If I drew / photographed anything else, I probably would have just posted that instead, to save myself all this writing:

In the past eight months I've started to read about the Buddhist philosophy, and I like it. I got lucky with the first book I picked up - it was very academic, written by a professor of linguists and Sanskrit. So it didn't have any hokey-pokey reincarnation and strange ritual stuff in it - it was an analysis of the original teachings that Siddhartha Gotama ('The Buddha') taught. His translation doesn't use extreme words like "Nirvana" and "Suffering", or judgmental words like "Good" and "Evil" that I would immediately be skeptical of.

Anyways, I'm finding that it's an exceptionally logical and worthwhile philosophy. It's all about realizing why you feel unease, and finding ways to reduce/eliminate unease. There is no spirituality to it, and there's no aspect of blind faith that is necessary. In fact, the idea is that you should be able to experience and discover all the tenets of the philosophy yourself, and that you should be skeptical and question it.

One part of the Buddhist thing that I find interesting is the idea that one source of our unease is that we tend to fabricate stories. We're constantly imagining situations that aren't necessarily true. "I'd better get my work done today or I'll fall way behind my deadline." Who knows if you'll fall behind, really? Why let it create stress? Do the work, of course, but get rid of the story. I do this constantly. I imagine what people think of me ("people will think this post is narcissistic"), I imagine negative results to taking a risk ("if I go machete some jungle with the Dominicans, they'll make fun of my poor Spanish"), etc etc. And none of it matters, when you really think about it.

That's made me think a lot about storytelling, which is what I've done as a career for the last fifteen years. What is the point of telling a fictional story? Why do I do it?

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the last few months I've become really interested in the completely nonfiction world of physics. I studied way too much Newtonian physics in University for Civil engineering, but the stuff I'm getting into is all the more recent theories - special and general relativity, quantum physics, string theory. The stuff is mind-blowing. "Truth is stranger than fiction", as they say, and I think theoretical physics epitomizes that saying.

Some of the workings of our universe are literally unimaginable.

"In 1965, Richard Feynman, one of the greatest practitioners of quantum mechanics, wrote,

'There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in one way or another. On the other hand I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.'

Although Feynman expressed this view more than three decades ago, it applies equally well today."1

We have a very good idea of how the universe works on a very small scale, but the ways that it works are pretty much impossible for our minds to comprehend. Get your head around that! It sends shivers up my spine every time I think about it!

Suffice it to say that the creative and logical sides of my brain are enthralled by the concepts of physics and buddhism. I have no idea how it will affect the art-side of my existence, but I'm interested to find out.

1The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. It's a best-seller. Easy to read, highly recommended!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Gravity, machetes, siesta

I haven't been drawing much on this trip, but yesterday I started at dawn and drew a fair bit all day long. I screwed up that tree. Every palm tree I've drawn so far is horrific, except for one I drew today. It takes me a bit to figure out how to draw different species of tree, it seems.

Siesta in the town of Las Galeras, from a French Cafe. Also, a little bit of a sketch trying to figure out how I could visually represent the Theory of General Relativity in computer animation software. Also, a shadow from the string that dangles from my camera.

Get this: gravity is actually a warping of space and time. As you get closer to anything with mass, space stretches and time gets slower. That's how we stick to the earth. So when you feel gravity as acceleration (like if you jumped off a cliff), what you're actually feeling is the distortion of space and time that the earth causes. Can you believe it?

More siesta drawings. Motoconcho drivers. 

The top of a papaya plant. They're like giant (ten-foot tall) asparagus plants. The papayas grow right off the stalk. There are only leaves at the very top of the plant.


The highlight of the day yesterday was walking home with a backpack full of groceries and being stopped by a couple of local farm-workers who were drinking beer in the back of their truck. They asked if I was looking for work, and if I wanted to work for them - get paid under the table, clearing
jungle with a machete.

I thought this was super cool for three reasons:

(1) I understand Spanish well enough to have that complex of a conversation (although it was very stilted and with a lot of gesturing).

(2) I must not look like a bewildered tourist any more. The dark skin and shaggy beard must help.

(3) I absolutely love using machetes. I worked as a surveyor for a while and the machete was the best tool for clearing a line through the bush - even West Coast Rainforest! You can hack down a 6" diameter tree with a machete in about 20 seconds. And you can use it to make poles / walking
sticks / hotdog roasting sticks real quick. Far better than a hatchet.

It seems like everyone has a machete in the Dominican Republic . Children are walking along the beaches with them. They use them to get into coconuts.

I can get a machete for 400 pesos (about 12 bucks). Coconuts are 50 pesos apiece. So if I buy a machete and use it to slaughter eight coconuts, I come out even.

Also, if I have a machete, I can go work with those dudes for a day or two, which would be an unforgettable experience. I think I'm too shy to do that though.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

sentimental about coral

Abandoned casita - a place to hide from the rain.

Angry bull.

When I was a young 'un, our family had two collections of wildlife encyclopedias - about three feet worth of bookshelf - and I used to read them cover to cover, over and over. I drew hundreds of nature scenes, probably thousands of animals, but I think the scenes I drew the most were coral reefs.

There was a fair bit of variety to those aquatic cross-sections... anemones, clownfish, antler-like branches of coral. I distinctly remember the first time I drew a fish that looked three-dimensional - I must have been four or five years old. It was an HB pencil drawing of a salmon, twisting back on itself, caught halfway through a turn. I remember leaning the drawing up against the wall and laying on my belly and staring at it for a long, long time, being somewhat amazed that I somehow drew it with my own hands, without looking at a book.

Today while I was snorkeling I passed over a bunch of coral, splayed out and dispersed just the way I used to draw it thirty-four years ago. All sorts of wonderful fish floated by - I can't remember their names, but their colours and shapes are as familiar to me as if I read those wildlife encyclopedias a year ago. Even their relative sizes, the depth of water, which fish are in schools and which aren't - I was drawing some startlingly accurate drawings at that age. Thinking back to those drawings, I always thought I was just drawing fish out of my head, but today I realized it was just too accurate. I must have referenced fish and plants and coral from the encyclopedias, and actually understood something about how it all fits together.

It's not possible to describe how grateful I am to be reliving those childhood fantasies - to be swimming through scenes that I dreamed about, drew and imagined for years. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

guaguas and guavas

I've discovered the joy of the guaguas - a somewhat-organized system of vans and pickup trucks that the locals use to get around the Dominican Republic. Riding in the back of a truck has always been my favorite gas-powered way to travel. Here, the joyful combination of passengers and thrilling scenery makes a fun ride into pure bliss:

Buying coconut bread from an old lady named Modesta at 60 km / hour as she hitches a ride to her beachfront fish-shack with a bag of bread and a bucket of fish. Called to a halt at a barber shop, where a woman gives the guagua driver an empty bottle of hairspray and a wad of pesos, presumably to refill the hairspray and return to her later in the day.

Cruising slowly past beachfront villages with two young Dominicans who work at the Aquarium. They pass around an iguana and show me the boa constrictor packed in their bag.

Today is a rainy quiet day on the far Northeast tip of the Dominican Republic - an area renowned for it's clear water, plentiful beaches, and top-notch snorkeling. After a forty-five minute jungle hike to a completely private beach (pictured very top right), I snorkeled out and saw my first full-size flounder. I only noticed it because it was a perfectly fish-shaped patch of light sand. I swam closer and saw its two bulbous eyes blinking up at me. I could swim right down within a foot of his face without him flinching. Do flounders have adrenaline? I wonder if his heart was pounding, thinking "Oh god, I hope that big fish doesn't see me. He doesn't see. Think sand, think sand, I am sand.."

Vultures and pelicans soaring effortlessly in the thermals and low across the water. Stories of tarantulas and millipedes and a local boa that makes the chickens scream at night. Watching fireflies play across the room after the lights are out. Papayas, bananas, oranges and unrecognizable fruits hanging from the trees, free for anyone to pick and eat.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

New Birds

I'd like to share some new birds I've seen on this trip. If you thought birds are boring, guess what? You're wrong!

(all of the photos are from the Internet) 

The Frigate Bird! These guys are huge - wingspans of up to seven feet. They have the highest wingspan-to-body weight ratio of any bird, which means they can stay aloft for up to a week! They can't walk, they can't swim, and they can't take off from water, so the Frigate Birds have to land on treetops and clifftops when they want to take a break.

These fellows are extremely fast and agile. They primarily feed by swooping down and plucking fish off the ocean's surface. I think it's fascinating that they do this, but could never become airborne again if they screwed up and caught a wing in the water or something. Would they just die? That way of life would be like humans bungee jumping over lava to pluck burgers out of it for lunch.

They also feed by chasing down other birds and forcing them to regurgitate their food, then diving down and catching the puke in their mouths before it hits the water.

The Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo! It is only found on this island. It hunts geckos. You should see it scampering around on the ground, peering up the trees with its big red beady eyes. I've never seen a bird hunt another animal like that. It looks very reptilian. 

Cuckoos have soft feathers that get soggy in the rain, so they have to stand in the wind and air them out to dry every morning after the nightly cloudbursts. 

This type of cuckoo doesn't sneak its eggs into other birds' nests. 

The Antillean Palm Swift!

I'm sure there are distinctive and miraculous facts about this bird, but I don't know any. All I know is that they're exceptionally sleek and beautiful and have a wonderful name.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Besides walking, here's how I get around. $1.75 Canadian gets me anywhere in town. $3.00 gets me to any beach I like.

I did a decent drawing today, but I gave it away to a boy named Marco who wanted to shine my shoes. The only other decent drawing I've done I gave to his buddy, Judi, who wanted to sell me a little wooden turtle. I gave him the choice of any page in my sketchbook, and he took my favorite page.

Before I gave them drawings, they stood over my shoulder, watching me draw, for a couple minutes. Moving closer and closer to see the details, and to compare what I was drawing with what I was seeing. I love it when children do that. Shyness overcome by curiosity and fascination.

When I lived in Berlin about a decade ago, I'd draw on the train on my way to work and often had boys and girls giggling as I drew them, or people around them. I'd be passing out pages from my sketchbook left and right.

I think that's my favorite kind of art-interaction -giving sketchbook pages to children.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

states of mind

I've been in the Dominican Republic for nine days now, and I think I'm finally starting to settle into it.

This trip is a different experience than I've ever had. I've done a fair bit of travelling in places where people don't speak my language. I've also spent a lot of time lounging on beaches. And I've done numerous "working vacations" where I pack along my laptop and art gear and work from a house-sit or a sublet or some such thing. But I've never done all three at once like I am now. I think my brain has been reeling a bit, trying to figure out which of the three states-of-being to refer to. But it seems to have sorted out a comfortable place to be again. It's nice to freshen up my ol' spirit by splashing it with the cold water of a new experience like this.

Also, it takes time to figure out the local spots that suit me and make me feel comfortable and happy. I can't get that from reading websites or a Lonely Planet; I have to find them for myself, or through word-of-mouth.

Here's a place I found today where I'll be spending a fair bit of time (click it for the big picture):

Two old Swiss men recommended it. It's an hour walk down an empty beach from where I'm staying - pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A group of fishermen have set up a cookshack serving fresh fish, rice, beans, salad, "pommes frites", and $2.00 bottles of Dominican "Presidente" cerveza. The meal costs 350 pesos - about $8.50 Canadian. The ocean is pristine with perfect rolling waves, and there's no one else in the water as far as the eye can see.

The fisherman saw I was struggling with Spanish, so he quickly switched to French, then German, then Italian. But no English. I love that. I love that there's a European flavour to this place.