Cloud Forests and Capybaras Part 2


Love this picture of Cinda getting chummy with the dolphins!

Today I’m posting the second half of my interview with Cinda MacKinnon, the author of A PLACE IN THE WORLD.  During the first part of the interview we talked about the wonders of Colombia, the setting of her book and then we switched gears to talk more about her.

JT: When you finally settled in the U.S., what rocked your world?

CCM: I don’t know if it really rocked my world but I rediscovered libraries!  In Bogota every time one of my friends would get a new book in English, we’d all pass it around like it was the greatest thing in the world. It didn’t matter if it was pulp fiction – it was a book!

Books, books!  We all love books!

Books, books! A much better obsession that TV!

CCM:  I”m embarrassed to admit I also discovered cable television. We had a TV in Colombia but only watched it once a week, when the I Love Lucy show was on.

My husband was appalled!  But in the U.S. people talk about all the shows they watched growing up like Leave it to Beaver, which I’d never seen so, of course, I had no point of reference. That whole part of the American culture was alien to me.

JT: And did you also go bonkers over McDonalds’ burgers?

CCM (chuckling)  Did I ever tell you about the McDonalds’ connection?

JT:  No what’s that?

This innocent looking sandwich is destroying the rain forests!

This innocent looking sandwich is destroying the rain forests!

CCM:  Well, one of the reasons the rain forests are disappearing is to feed America’s love affair with hamburgers.  Costa Rica lost, I forgot the percentage but I can look it up for you, a lot more of their rain forests than Colombia and the reason was cattle ranching.

JT: So to save the rain forests we should eat fewer hamburgers?

CCM (chuckling): Costa Rica is trying to promote eco-tourism which should help (although it encourages more trampling on sensitive plants so…) And then there’s reforestation, however, what regrows is not always the same as what had been there before – the plants, well, they’re just not the same. It’s kind of a double-edged sword but better than nothing.( Click here to learn more about what is being done to save the rain forests)

JT: Your novel is set in the late 1900s. Is there any particular reason you chose that time period?

Long swinging bridge.

Long swinging bridge.

CCM:  It was the peak of bad news for Colombia – you had the drug cartels, the guerrillas, the coffee fincas being taken over for cocaine…I should clarify, most cocaine is not grown in Colombia just processed there.

JT: You told me you considered killing off your protagonist (Alicia).  Why?

CCM: During the ’70s and ’80s it wasn’t uncommon for people to simply disappear in Colombia.  I knew people who were driven off their land and some even lost their lives.  It just seemed a likely thing.

JT:  You recently returned from a trip to Columbia, how was it different from the Colombia of your teen years? Did you still fear for your life?


Town consumed by city.

CCM:  The embassy is, of course, telling people not to travel to certain areas (embassy personnel are not even allowed to travel by bus!) however, my friend travelled all over without having any problems at all.

There are certain foods you may want to avoid.  In Bogota or inland areas avoid fish – except trout.  I ordered  bass and it came head and tail intact, fried to a dried-out crisp.  Stick with trout, chicken or beef- they are big on beef.  Fish is good in coastal areas of course.  My favorite dish is ajaico


Check out for more delicious Colombian recipes.

chicken stew with potatoes, corn, capers, herbs and avocado.  Also be sure to try arepas, corn cakes, and

empanandas, sort of meat fritters, while in Colombia – and I love the platano, plantain, and yuca.   By the way, the water is safe in Bogota – but not rural areas.

JT:  Last but not least, how was your experience publishing your first novel?  Any words to the wise to debut novelists?

CCM:  That’s a huge topic – I could write a book!

And now blog followers, as promised, one last picture of Gaston, the most wonderful dog in the world.

GAston pensive_0960ps

Cloud Forests and Capybaras

front cover finalThe other day I interviewed Cinda MacKinnon, author of A PLACE IN THE WORLD, the passionate story of a young biologist struggling for survival in the cloud forests of Colombia during a very turbulent time.  On her blog she explores Colombian culture and the rain forests in addition to inviting fellow ex-pats to share their experiences – fascinating stuff!  Aside from being an author, Cinda is an environmental scientist who holds an MA in geology.  More importantly she’s the owner of the world’s most wonderful dog, Gaston.  Baby Gaston (2)

I’ve known Cinda for many years and during that time she’s refused to age, still lovely as the proverbial breath of fresh air and just as delightful.   I’ve never seen that lady in a bad mood. Wait a minute.  What’s up with that?  Writers are supposed to be moody and often depressed.  Not to worry, loyal readers, I’ll definitely delve deeply into this deviance from the writerly norm ; )

We decided to use the interview as an excuse to have lunch together at Siam Orchard, a popular Thai place across the street from the library in downtown Orinda.  After getting our orders, Cinda dove right into what inspired her to write A PLACE IN THE WORLD.


Ginger Salad – yummy! 

CM: I grew up without a place where I felt I really belonged.  My father was in the foreign service and we moved a lot but spent most of our time in Latin America.  So, I know what it’s like feeling stateless. That’s why once my heroine found a place she loved she insisted on staying there, despite the difficulties, and making it her home.

JT: A PLACE IN THE WORLD is set in the cloud forests of Colombia near where you lived as a child.  To me, cloud forest suggests elves, fairies and talking trees. What sort of enchanted beings or plants would one expect to find in a cloud forest?

CC (chuckling):  Well, let’s see – no elves or fairies that I’ve seen!  But there are jaguars, capybaras and quetzals.  The jaguar are beautiful animals, frightening but magical in their own way and the capybaras are unique because, well, I don’t  think they live anywhere but in South American.

JT: What is a capy…?  (JT stumbles with the pronunciation)

CM: Bara?  It’s the world’s largest rodent. They sort of look like oversized chipmunks.

(Click here to check out a hysterical video of a singing capybara.  A giant rodent singing opera? That’s definitely magical.)

JT:  And the…

CM: The quetzal?  It’s the most fascinating bird in the world.  It has iridescent emerald feathers, a red breast and tail feathers this long (Cinda indicates an arms-length.) The Mayans used to collect its feathers believing they had magical powers.

"Just a gorgeous bird"

The Quetzal “Just a gorgeous bird”

(Note from JT.  After seeing a picture of one, I have to agree.  Look at those tail feathers!)

JT: How about legends and myths?

CM: The myth of El Dorado (the Golden One) comes from Colombia.

JT: Oh really?

CM (nodding yes): Many, many years ago, before the Spaniards arrived, there lived an Indian ruler (El Dorado) who – as a part of an annual ritual – covered himself in gold dust and then the Indians took him on a raft to the middle of a lake and threw him in … well not threw him in.  He got in the water and washed the gold dust off. His followers then threw gold and other offerings into the “sacred” lake. When that gold was discovered years later it prompted the legend. (JT: For more about El Dorado click here.)

Then there’s the legend of Salto Del Tequendama, a beautiful 550-foot waterfall near Bogota with a tragic history.  During the Spanish conquest many of the indigenous people thought the only way to escape being made a slave was to throw themselves from the top of the falls. The legend was that halfway down they’d magically transform into an eagle and thus could fly away to freedom. Sad.

(From JT: For more about  Salto Del Tequendama and its Haunted Hotel, check this out:  It’s fascinating and on my bucket list.)

 Ok peeps – that’s all for today.  I’m tired of transcribing.  Next time, Cinda discusses what bewitched her upon returning to the states (even though it mortified her husband), the hamburger’s sinister connection to the rain forests,  and why you may want to re-think ordering fish in Colombia.
Stay tuned!

Dog Daze

Girl in hat watching parade.

Girl in hat watching the parade. Pollyanna?

On the Fourth of July we always walk downtown for the parade with our neighbors and their dog.  Our neighbors have the coolest dog in the world.  If he were a human he would be Cary Grant – suave and sexy but with a playful side.  With his golden, slightly curly fur, he charms all the lady dogs and the young studs too but steers clear of German Shepherds.


Patriotic dogs posing for a pic. Is the big guy Jimmy Stewart or Mike Tyson?  Cary Grant wants to know.

You can never tell when confronting a German Shepherd – he could be either a Jimmy Stewart or a Mike Tyson.

Like Cary Grant, our neighbor’s dog doesn’t approve of exercising in the heat and often wrapped his silky body at my feet in the shade.

Gaston April '11_035

Gaston aka Cary Grant

Before they fell in love with Cary Grant the neighbors had a black dog, not sure what breed, who they called Toby.  One day Toby came up for a visit.  When I said “Hi Toby!”  he glared at me.  “My name is Jack,” he said.  Well, not in so many words but with that look dogs’ll give you when they think you’re a nitwit. Toby’s human equivalent would have been Humphrey Bogart, mysterious but trustworthy, a hopeless romantic with a cynical shell.


Our July 4th festivities always include a petting zoo.

At the time the neighbors had Toby/Jack I had a dog named Berna, short for Bernadette.  She was a shelty-beagle mix I found on the bottom of a heap of pups at the pound.  Her siblings had more energy and looked much more eager to be rescued but I’ve always cheered the underdog and in this case, the bottom of the heap dog.  She puked and pooped all the way home.  She always stank.  She couldn’t be car trained or trained at all for that matter.  She’d run onto freeways, get her head stuck in Costco sized mayonnaise jars and dig up every living thing I tried to plant in the back yard.  But her crowning achievement was a spot on a Channel 7 news story  exposing the water wasters of the East Bay (this is a long story which illustrates the depths of depravity a film crew will go to get a  scoop). Guard dog, she was not.  Bay at the moon dog, she was.  Escape artist, par excellence.  When I put my house on the market the first agent scowled “get rid of the dog.  You’ll never sell this house with her in it.”  I got rid of the agent.


Who would  Berna’s movie star equivalent be? Angelina Jolie?

Anyway – enough about dogs. When I started blogging I resolved to leave politics, grandchildren and dogs off my list of subjects and here I’ve gone and broken my vows. Nevermore, I swear.


Can’t have a parade without a jazz band on a flat–bed truck!

The next best thing about the Fourth is how it brings out the rebel in all of us.  Who doesn’t love marching down Main Street in a happy riot of fellow citizens, for a few hours, owning the streets.  What a sense of freedom it is.