Icelandic Christmas

Last month, I gave a talk about an Icelandic Christmas at our church’s “Christmas Around the World” event and thought to share one more post about a country I really enjoyed visiting!

Iceland is really pronounced, (deeper 1st syllable) “EEs-land.” (All the pronunciations in this article are my clumsy attempts to say it as well as I can after listening to the phonetics online.)

It’s a beautiful country! Europe’s largest glacier shares the island with many bubbling hot springs and spouting “GAY-sirs”, where the word geyser was born. It has active volcanoes, like the one no broadcaster can pronounce. You have a choice of where to sink in and relax in the many spectacular geothermal hot pools around the island. The island’s cold running water comes straight from natural springs; hot running water is from the thermal springs, but don’t drink it!

Many movies and TV shows have been shot here. Iceland is the only place in the world that you can actually see the collision of BOTH the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates! Iceland’s Thingvellir (THING-vet-lish) National Park is the UNESCO World Heritage site of one of the world’s earliest and longest running parliaments, starting from 930 AD!

When Iceland was settled in the 800s, most residents were pagan, worshipping Norse gods. Their language is almost unchanged from ancient Norse! Before Christianity was introduced, winter solstice celebrations were extravagant events.

When Olaf Tryggvason, a Christian, ascended the throne of Norway in the late 900s, more people in Iceland became Christians. So much so that strong religious differences between the pagans and the Christians stirred up the beginnings of a civil war.

So, in the year 1000, after a meeting of all of Iceland’s leaders, the country’s official religion was declared to be Christianity. Christmas is called, “Yule” or “jYu ol” (“Jol”) in Icelandic. It is not a reference to Christ or the church. It’s a Norse word and existed in Old English as Yule. So, Christmas in Iceland is a mix of Christianity and old Norse traditions with two celebrations – celebrating the birth of Christ and the beginning of the lengthening daylight hours.

Christmas is a serious event. People start decorating as early as October to brighten the increasingly longer nights. They have Christmas markets, even one by an ice skating rink, concerts and Christmas buffets filled with delicious Icelandic Christmas foods!

The whole house is cleaned, everyone gets something new to wear, the best food is purchased, the house is decorated and HUNDREDS of cookies are baked!

Yule time “officially” lasts 13 days, from December 24 to January 6, when all Christmas decorations are removed from the streets. Christ’s birth is celebrated on December 25th and the Three Wise Men are celebrated on January 6th.

Beginning 13 days BEFORE Christmas, the first of 13 Yule Lads comes down from the mountains. Old folklore says that they were the sons of trolls and each day a different boy would come down to cause trouble. These days, they’re “good” lads that look more like skinny Santa Clauses. Each child puts their best shoe on the windowsill. The lads pass by. If a child was good, a small present like candy, a book or a toy is left. If a child was bad, a rotten potato is left in the shoe!

Another strange, yet popular, tale says that EVERY Icelander MUST receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Lads’ HUGE black cat, known as the Christmas Cat, will wander around the island on Christmas Eve and EAT those who don’t have new clothes!

A much more inviting image than that of a human-eating cat is of a child happily reading a brand new book in a cozy bed. Did you know that 93% of Icelanders will have read at least one book each year? And, one islander in ten will publish a book in their lifetime – fascinating!

The annual Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood,” is a Christmas tradition that had it’s beginning in World War II. At that time, foreign imports were limited, but paper was plentiful. Nowadays, publishers release a flood of new books right before Christmas and people go bananas! What a beautiful way to spend a quiet Christmas evening, settling down with a good book.

On December 23rd, three things occur:

1) December 23rd was once a religious day. That’s when Saint Thorlac (Tour-r-r Lack), the patron saint of Iceland, died. Now, it’s traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year and has become the “last-minute-shopping-like-crazy” day! Icelanders spend the evening in the city, and shops and cafes stay open late.

2) In (R-r-rAY-gya-veek) Reykjavik, the country’s capital, the annual peace walk goes down the main shopping street with marchers carrying torches. It’s a pretty amazing sight!

3) And, December 23rd is when many families make and eat skata (SKAH-ta). It’s a dish made from a member of the shark family that looks more like a stingray. Much like Asia’s stinky tofu and durian, it has an OVERWHELMINGLY foul odor. Skata smells like something is rotting, although it’s only fermented. This is usually the only day it’s eaten ALL year because the disgusting smell is so strong that if you’ve been cooking or eating a lot of it, it gets into your clothes and stays with you!

Cemeteries are often decorated with Christmas lights! The Christmas, or Yule tree, is usually decorated early Christmas Eve. Originally, decorations included candles, fruit and popcorn or cranberry garlands. Nowadays, a star or crown will top the tree, and the Icelandic Flag is often used as a decoration, along with garlands, lights and more decorations.

A popular Christmas side dish is laufabraud (LAY va bredt) meaning leaf bread, which are wafer-thin rounds of wheat dough cut into delicate patterns and quick fried. (The bread goes back at least to the 1700s.) Early December, the whole family, even the men, get together to make the bread so that it can be enjoyed with the Christmas meal. Nowhere else in the world does anyone make such unique “breads.”

A simple Christmas meal also includes lamb, often smoked, red cabbage and boiled potatoes. The Christmas cake, jolakaka, has raisins in it.

Another unusual tradition is that on Christmas Eve, at 6pm, Christmas Day starts!

After dinner, presents are taken from under the Christmas tree and opened. Some will leave their cozy warm houses to go to church. It is like a typical American family holiday. People eat at home, play board games and snuggle under blankets watching Christmas movies. Christmas Day, December 25th, people visit family. The day after, Boxing Day, involves going to MORE family gatherings.

Years ago, TVs would be turned off on Christmas between 5p and 10pm, to focus on Christmas activities, but that’s no longer the case. Still, there’s no public dancing or entertainment on the 24th and 25th. It’s family time. This is Iceland’s longest holiday – everything is closed from noon on Christmas Eve until December 27!

The Aurora Borealis often appears during this time. And if you want a White Christmas in Iceland, you’ll do well to head to Northern Iceland.

On a side note, some of my Sunday school classmates made four Icelandic Christmas cookies: Silver Coins (Spesiur); Rice Krispies Muffins; Chocolate-Cornflake (Marens-Kornflexkokur; Soft Chocolate Pikes. The overwhelming favorite was the Marens-Kornflexkokur cookies from the saveur.com recipe.

These are the sources I can remember: wikipedia; whychristmas.com; saveur.com; guidetoiceland.is; iceland.is; icelandunlimited.is; icelandtravel.is; readitforward.com

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White Linen Night in the Heights

The DJ on the platform takes a selfie with two young women.
The DJ on the platform takes a selfie with two young women.

This past weekend, we attended White Linen Night in the Heights. It has been a popular event in Houston for the past 11 years, but this was our first time. The lively affair started when a couple of transplants from New Orleans suggested it to generate more interest in businesses along 19th street in the Heights area.

Vanity Salon on 19th St. provided hair braiding for a donation to their designated charity.
Vanity Salon on 19th St. provided hair braiding for a donation to their designated charity.

The couple, Chris & Kay Thayer, had a business on Magazine Street in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and flooded 80% of the city. Their shop was not damaged, but they knew life would be very different if they stayed. They became part of the exodus of over 250,000 people resulting from the devastating levee failures against Hurricane Katrina’s powerful winds and water surges during that fateful summer of 2005.

The woman, below, looks up at a gorgeous chandelier rescued from an estate sale in River Oaks!
The woman, below, looks up at a gorgeous chandelier rescued from an estate sale in River Oaks!

Because of that evacuation, many New Orleanians decided not to go back to a place they loved dearly but knew they had to start afresh elsewhere. Plenty settled in Houston and brought their wonderful Creole culture with them. You can drive around the Heights and realize there is a definite influence.

I always wanted to meet famous women! This art car gave me the opportunity to hang out with bigger-than-life portraits of Mary Tyler Moore, Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo!
I always wanted to meet famous women! This art car gave me the opportunity to hang out with bigger-than-life portraits of Mary Tyler Moore, Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo!

The organizers of the annual free event only asks that you come dressed in white (preferably all white) and browse the local businesses.

Well, it wasn't quite a luau, but it felt like it in one of the shops that offered hair braiding along with clothes shopping, with a Hawaiian twist!
Well, it wasn’t quite a luau, but it felt like it in one of the shops that offered hair braiding along with clothes shopping, with a Hawaiian twist!

There are lots of freebies like water, teas, photo booth pictures, ice cream samples, appetizers, etc.

Large pitchers of complimentary iced tea in an antique shop greeted thirsty customers coming in from the Houston heat.
Large pitchers of complimentary iced tea in an antique shop greeted thirsty customers coming in from the Houston heat.

If you come before 6:30 pm, you can easily find a parking space at the Chase bank parking lot. It gets harder to find a parking space as the night gets longer. There’s a younger vibe later in the evening.

An Old English Sheepdog, or Bobtail, sits watching the crowds go by.
An Old English Sheepdog, or Bobtail, sits watching the crowds go by.

People packed the upper terrace at Harold’s restaurant and dined on authentic creole cuisine as they viewed the activity down below. We skipped the crowded restaurants and festival food trucks and left around 9 pm to stop at a local Mexican restaurant on the way home.

As the day wore on, no one seemed to notice as day seamlessly drifted into night.
As the day wore on, no one seemed to notice as it drifted seamlessly into night.

If you don’t mind the heat that will ease a little as the sun goes down and you enjoy shopping, this should be a night to put on your calendar for next year!

Sources: Creole vs.Cajun ; theheightswhitelinennight.com; datacenterresearch.org

Iceland Goes Before Istanbul

Last fall, my husband and I left our home in the sunny warmth of the Texas heat to begin an almost 3 month adventure! The plan was to start in Iceland, travel across Western Europe and fly back from Istanbul.

Iceland
Iceland!

We headed to “The Land of Fire and Ice”, also known as Iceland, Island (pronounced “istlant”) and the Republic of Iceland. It has other, older names that I can’t pronounce. One that I can, is the Kingdom of Iceland. Yes, kingdom, and with their own coat of arms!

Wait! I can’t go on about our trip without giving props to Iceland’s amazing football team’s performance during the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament! With a bit over 330,000 Icelanders on 40,000 scenic square miles, it’s the most sparsely populated nation in Europe. And yet, it’s national football (soccer) team beat England … ENGLAND!!!

Do you know that joke? “A Swedish coach, a part-time dentist and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson walk onto a field …”

It was just awesome when 27,000 Icelanders (about 8% of the country) flew to France and vigorously supported their team.  Heard they were model fans. They stayed out of trouble, unlike the rowdy, brawling British and Russian fans! And for the team to arrive home to a sea of people carpeting the field near the harbor and singing the “Viking War Chant” in unison, so cool! (Thanks, RT global news!)

Well, we arrive in Reykjavik to no such glorious welcome. It’s overcast and a bit dreary-looking, with a constant misty drizzle. We booked an AirBnB, just a five minute walk to the downtown shops and restaurants. It’s a one bedroom apartment with a decent sized kitchen/living room in a residential area.

CityWalk tour with Marteinn
Oh, the stories Marteinn can tell you!

We go on a free CityWalk tour with energetic Marteinn. The drizzle lets up and I get some photos. Marteinn is the walk’s founder and he’s very informative.

Reykjavik City Hall
We walked along Lake Tjornin and right into Reykjavik’s City Hall!

We visit City Hall, the building on the left at the end of this path along the lake. There is a restaurant in the building where the lake’s fish swim by the window. Tip: There’s also a giant map of Iceland and clean public restrooms!

Funny thing. Even though it’s called Iceland and has glaciers, you won’t see ice floating in the water, not even in winter.

Another funny thing. Their telephone book is alphabetized by first name, then surname, occupation and address. The exception, people like singer/composer Björk. She’s so famous only her first name is needed!

Hallgrimskirkja church interior
Inside Hallgrimskirkja church is uncluttered simplicity.

We roamed the city, stopping at the local main landmark. The magnificent image of Hallgrimskirkja church belies the sleekly designed interior. It was nice. We went up to view the city from the church’s observation tower.

Hallgrimskirkja church observation tower
Harbor view from the observation tower of Hallgrimskirkja church.

Lunch found us at a local restaurant that served Icelandic food. I enjoyed my lamb soup and sandwich! At dinner one night, my husband ordered whale. Ugh!!! I couldn’t watch him eat it, even though he said it was similar to steak.

Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre
Can you just feel the Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre’s space?!?

Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre view of the old harbor, Reykjavik, Iceland
Enjoy this view now, as the old harbor will eventually be blocked by tall buildings in the name of commercialism!

One of the more interesting halls I’ve been to is the Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre. It’s honeycomb-like framework and great expanses of space are beautifully open to gazing out. Sunrises and sunsets must be spectacular when viewed from its upper floors!

Icelandic waterfall
Another of Iceland’s scenic views.

We also booked a Golden Circle tour. Tip: Don’t wait and book it the day before like we did. Book well in advance as all the better companies will be super busy when the cruise ships arrive! We wanted to go on the small group tour that pulls over and lets you take photos with Icelandic horses. We wound up with a tour company whose guide said little about the surroundings on the way to each destination. It seemed she was just there to ensure that everyone got back on the bus. Good thing we read up about Iceland’s natural beauty and history!

The first stop was just outside of Reykjavik in Þingvellir (Assembly Plains), site of Alþingi (General Assembly), Iceland’s first national parliment. To be standing where chieftains gathered to form the country’s very first national parliament was pretty amazing to me!

Althing, Iceland
Alþingi, Iceland’s first national parliament was formed in 930.

Next stop, the roaring Hvítá river where the two waterfalls of Gullfoss (golden falls) guide the rushing, teeming water straight down into a 105 ft. gorge!

My husband took the photo at just the right moment.

Gullfoss rainbow, Iceland
A rainbow arches over Gullfoss’ two waterfalls at  river.

We enter Haukadalur valley. The valley is known for the Strokkur and Geysir geysers and various mudholes and fumaroles. Yes, the name geyser came from Geysir. We didn’t have to wait very long for Strokkur to erupt. It happened every 8-10 minutes.

Strokkur Geysir steam
Strokkur geyser blew, mudholes bubbled and gaseous steam filled the area!

On the way back, I spot a group of men standing by a river. When asked, the guide explains that it’s a rescue party. Someone is in trouble further up the river and it looks that they are deciding how to handle it. The rescuers are volunteers and they put their own lives at risk each time they go out. So, please exercise good judgment when crossing streams and such when travelling this magnificent, wild country.

Rescue party by the mighty river
The rushing, powerful waters make the rescue party (on the left bank) seem quite insignificant.

Iceland is presumed to have been formed from volcanic lava and is sitting atop two of the earth’s shifting plates, Eurasian and North American, causing earthquakes and geysers and volcanoes to erupt. Speaking of volcanoes, Iceland has more than 200 of them. There are 30 active systems running through the island. They put out so much heat that Icelanders harnessed it to supply the entire island with hot water and energy. Careful, you can drink the cold tap water, but the hot tap water is not drinkable!

Remember Eyjafjallajökull, the 2010 volcano that no newscaster could pronounce? It erupted and caused flight delays in Europe and its lava created two new mountains!

Now, if you want to really view a volcano from the inside, that would be Þríhnúkagígur. It’s the only volcano in the whole world you can actually go down, deep inside!

We were so happy to have experienced a little bit of the island’s natural beauty. I created a flipagram of our time in Iceland.

If you want to read more about the culture and history of Iceland, Katharina Hauptmann shares some interesting articles about Iceland. I researched online at wikipediaVisit Iceland and several sites that I’ve forgotten already. Just google Iceland and you will see lots to educate yourself on this amazing nation and its storied history!

Do You Like Chinese Dumplings?

Well, I DO!!! Growing up, my mother would make dishes from “the old country”. One of my favorites is Fahn-Soa Tay. It is also my daughter’s favorite dumpling. My mother-in-law had many friends who would make delicacies such as those dumplings and doong (think of it as a Chinese rice tamale) and share them with her. In turn, she would divide them and call all her children to come home so she could parcel them out equally. What a wonderful memory!

I just started another YouTube channel, “AChineseLife”, to keep my Chinese traditions alive. It will highlight videos of authentic Chinese dishes, how-to’s on Chinese culture and things like interviews with Chinese that I find interesting.

This is the first video I created with a friend of my mother-in-law’s who was kind enough to show a group of ABCs (American Born Chinese) and a few foreign born Chinese how to make a basic dumpling from the area of Toi-San, China. My parents were from a village there and many of the senior Chinese ladies at my church are from that region.

Our language is considered similar to Cantonese, as both are in the same branch of Chinese spoken in southern China. Some of the words are very close in sound, but Cantonese is quite different to me. I grew up pronouncing the county my parents came from as “Hoi-San”, but it’s more commonly referred to as “Toi-San” or “Tai-Shan”, the Cantonese or Mandarin pronunciations. Years ago, I saw a map that showed Hoi-San as a province. In fact, according to the National Geographic, a district is also considered a province. Still, as I’ve gathered from Wikipedia and other sources, Hoi-san is one of four original districts in the Guangdong Province. It’s said that over 90% of overseas born North American Chinese were from Hoi-San, and I believe it! We have visited many Chinatowns in the U.S. and Canada over the years and could usually find a Hoi-San speaker. Nowadays, they are predominately Cantonese speaking. There is one Chinese restaurant near southwest Houston’s “Chinatown” that has a Hoi-San speaking owner. We always enjoy our conversations with Michelle at Golden Dim Sum!

During WWII, one-fourth of the Flying Tigers came from Hoi-San. My father was living in the U.S. at the time. He was inducted into the Army and later signed up as support crew to the Flying Tigers. He was very proud of his Flying Tiger pin!

More about my father in another post. On to the dumplings! These are the very basic ones as I assume the villagers didn’t have shrimp and mushrooms or other wonderful ingredients that really shine in these dumplings. Still, we enjoyed these!

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Where’s Soo?

 

The Question

Did you wonder what happened to me this year? Did you think I dropped off the face of the earth??? I admit it. There wasn’t much reaching out this year, but I’m still here. Really. I am.

 

The Explanation

For one thing, I became more active on Twitter. Quickly posting 140 character tweets, including images, is so freeing. And I learn lots by following amazing people in various fields of interest. I even won an ASUS tablet on Twitter! (Tell you about it in another post.)

The second reason is because we have been traveling quite a bit. Often, in my posts, I try to research places or subjects I mention to give you interesting tidbits and facts. That requires a little more thought and planning, which can be difficult to do when we’re on the go.

 

The Gratitude

But, let me tell you …

This has been a wonderful year! A blessed year! A year of thanksgiving!

A little one has come into our family and enriched our lives immensely. And to add to that, my husband and I have taken more time to travel our beloved United States and beyond.

 

January

DSC06416We visited Ice Land at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas. It was 9° inside! They brought in a team of experienced ice sculptors from Harbin, China. Also known as ‘Ice City’, Harbin is the acknowledged cradle of ice and snow art in China and is famous for its spectacular ice and snow sculptures.  

The Moody Gardens theme was a SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas and went into the first week of 2015. 

 

Before heading home, we had dinner at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, the largest fresh fish house along the Gulf coast. With over 100 years of seafood service in Galveston, this is the place we go when we want a view of the water and to be pampered in a lovely setting.DSC06488

 

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States and has a large number of Asian residents. Understanding the need to educate Americans about Asia, a group led by former First Lady Barbara Bush and former Ambassador Roy M. Huffington established Asia Society Texas Center in 1979.

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I visited the Asia Society Texas Center when there was an exhibit of The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi. His 2005 mask of Johannes Vemeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was so unexpected! Can you imagine being behind the mask, trying to feel what she was thinking?

 

 

 

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Oni Sadobo, 2011, was made of the treacherous monk from a famous Kabuki play. Very meticulous. Even the brown specks on his face replicated the foxing seen on the original woodblock print!

 

 

 

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I couldn’t resist trying on a mask! Like it?

 

 

 

 

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston offers free general admission every Thursday. Lots of wonderful things to see. One of my favorite pieces is by Mary Cassatt. Mary was one of only two women and the lone American to join the Impressionists. Her close friend, Edgar Degas, encouraged her to join and what a gift she has given us! “Susan Comforting the Baby” is such a lovely snapshot of a typical moment in everyday life.IMG_0561

 

Really like this sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg, born just down the highway from Houston, in Port Arthur, Texas. Only then, he was called Milton. The chairs are really metal, assembled to appear wooden!

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Interesting man. In the mid-1940s, Robert had planned to go into medicine, but after serving in the Navy, he enrolled in art school in Kansas. The following year, he went to Paris to study at one of the art Academies.

In the 1950s, Rauschenberg recyled found things like tissue paper and dirt into his art. Throughout the years, he designed costumes, sets and lighting for dance companies. He also founded or co-founded several organizations to help artists.

 

February

The Chinese Lunar New Year brought out some beautiful clothes. This shy young boy was kind enough to stop a moment and let me take a picture. (As with any recognizable close-ups of children, I ask their parents or guardians for permission first.)

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We head north to spend time with relatives. It snowed, which doesn’t happen often in the Houston area. It was lovely!

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This is also the month trail riders and wagons start the trek to Houston’s Livestock Show & Rodeo! It can take weeks for some teams. This particular team, Los Vaqueros Rio Grande, drove their five wagons the farthest: 386 miles!  It starts in Reynosa, Mexico, crosses into Hidalgo, Texas and comes right by our community on the three week ride into Houston. They have been riding into the HLSR for 42 years! I have only seen them go by our community THREE times in the 20 years we’ve lived here, so it was a real treat to take a quick shot as they rode by!

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March

I went to Arizona to visit my old roommate. We celebrated Palm Sunday at an inspiring, bonding outdoor mass. (I’m Baptist, but she didn’t know of a Baptist church, and well, we worship the same God.)

 

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Afterward, we walked the Labyrinth at the Franciscan Renewal Center. The labyrinth is a physical representation of the journey of one’s life, including experiences, changes, discoveries and challenges. As you walk the path, you are invited to remember the story of your life. For medieval Christians who couldn’t take the long, hard pilgrimage, labyrinths were the alternative form for prayer. The seven circles are shaped like the Cross and you can walk it any way you like.

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This particular labyrinth was designed by Taffy Lanser, a founding member of the international Labyrinth Society.

 

We also went to a festival in Scottsdale.The theme might have been Spain. They had gorgeous Andalusians (Pure Spanish Horses) walking about, singers and (I think) flamenco dancing. Gorgeous desert blooms!

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The only down side of the trip was when I was catching a flight back. I had just found out I had to change my flight and leave a day earlier, which was that day! The flight was moved to two hours before take-off and I rushed to find a taxi to take me to the airport. Compared rates and went with Discount Cabs. BIG mistake! Wished I’d taken the time to research it. I gave location and destination and was given an approximation, give or take a few dollars. The cab was late, it didn’t look like a cab, and the driver was new. I had to get in or miss my flight. When I asked the driver why he was so late, he said he didn’t take his phone in when he had to stop at a store. NOT very professional. The final bill was $17 more than the quote. I lost a few minutes trying to speak with a supervisor about the outrageous overage. Three people later, no refund. So, the moral of the story is to use Yelp or check the Better Business Bureau or Google search (or ALL of them!) when comparing prices. The least expensive may not be such a bargain in the long run. Beware Discount Cabs!!!

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Traveling Through Texas?

Christmas and the first day of 2015 have passed, but many travelers are still navigating the roads home. If you’re passing through Texas, I have three suggestions:

Really Clean Restrooms!

Buc-ee's merchandise can be fun!
Buc-ee’s merchandise can be fun!

If you see a Buc-ee’s, pull over for clean, clean restrooms that are open 24/7 all year round! I know what I’m  getting when we spot the toothy beaver billboard. This home-grown group of large, bright, neat-as-a-button convenience stores is full of things travelers need or want. There are lots of fuel pumps, usually around 15 to 20 tiled restroom stalls for the ladies, hot and cold deli foods and snacks like beef jerky and sweet Beaver Nuggets. In addition to outdoor barbeque grills and bags of ice, they have expanded their gifts section and there are lots of kid-friendly products, too! Ah, yes, I do ♥ Buc-ee’s.

A 10¢ Cup of Coffee

Hankerin’ for a little break as you drive through historic downtown Corsicana? This charming city, named for the French island of Corsica, is about 55 miles south of Dallas. If coffee’s on during regular retail hours, the downtown location of Collin Street Bakery on W 7th Avenue sells a simple cup of 10¢ joe you can sip while perusing their tasty treats. They opened several relatively new locations selling more lunch foods like sandwiches and soup, but I think this one has character. Besides cookies, breads and cakes, they’ve been baking their world famous DeLuxe Fruitcake for over a century!

Fruitcakes are still made from the original 1896 Old-World recipe brought to Corsicana by the bakery’s co-founder, German master baker, Augustus Weidmann. I’m not into fruitcakes, but my husband loves their really moist pineapple ‘cake. Years ago, Mr. Barnum brought his circus through the shop and everyone began ordering fruitcakes to send to family and friends throughout the world! Decades later, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still places orders.

If you have time, you can drive down the street to get an unexpected view of Moorish Revival architecture at the former Temple Beth-El on South 15th Street. Originally built in 1898, it’s listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

You wouldn’t think from the easy going small town feel that Corsicana is where the first important Texas oil field was discovered and where the Mobil and Texaco companies were founded!

Texas BBQ, anyone?

Rudy's is a casual restaurant, usually visible near a freeway.
Rudy’s is a casual restaurant, usually visible near a freeway.

Since 1989, a string of Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q spots have been keeping Texans and the southwest happy with tender barbeque soused with their special blend of “sause.”  You won’t (sadly, for me) find a crisp lettuce salad here, but you will find lots of meat with a choice of sides. The ribs and (fatty) brisket are full of flavor! People can argue up and down Texas about the best BBQ in the state, from Smitty’s, Black’s and Kreuz in Lockhart (the BBQ Capital of TX) to Franklin’s in Austin and Snow’s in Lexington and on and on. But … for easy access from the freeway and decent gas prices at their pumps, Rudy’s will do.

Happy and safe traveling to you in 2015! 

“I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.” Jeremiah 31:25

To Tell of Santa Claus or Not to Tell

I was reading http://beautifullifewithcancer.com/ and liked how Caroline shared Gladys Hunt’s words that I decided to share with you all the conundrum of Santa Claus and Jesus – to tell children about Santa or not to tell.

Posted on December 14, 2014 Christmas by Caroline

A Thought on Santa Claus

My previous article, “From the Mouth of Babes” brought up the discussion of Santa Claus.  I remembered reading this and I agree with Gladys Hunt.  Definitely a subject for each parent to decide what is right for their family, but I am sharing this with some that I was discussing it with or anyone pondering this issue.  Honey For a Child’s Heart is a wonderful read!

Selections quoted from Honey For a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt:

What about fairy tales?  Some parents are troubled by fairy tales. …Others don’t like elves and talking animals.  Some refuse even Santa Claus ….children don’t take life as seriously as adults and read more often for pleasure.  …Children have room in their lives for a great deal of miracles.  “That’s the problem,” someone will say, If you let them believe in fairies and fantasy, how will they distinguish between truth and falsehood?”  I can’t help thinking that since children love make believe, they can easily tell the difference.  ….There is nothing unspiritual about an active imagination, a token of the liberty of childhood.  One of my young friends at three told me about the tiger who lived in her backyard.  I inquired about where she kept him and what she fed him and she told me about the details with great delight.  Then I told her about the tiger who lived in my backyard.  Her eyes danced as I described his strange behavior and that he had purple stripes.  Then she came very close and whispered, “Is your’s a real one?” When I said it wasn’t, she said confidentiality, “Mine isn’t either.”  Was I encouraging her to lie?  I think not.  Both of us were in on the world of pretend, a legitimate adventure.  How quickly we want to quench the fine spirit of childhood.  Imagination is the stuff of which creativity comes.  …”I knew about Santa Claus like I knew about elves and other pretend things.  I never got them mixed up with God because I could tell from the way my parents talked and acted what was true.”

Well, thank you, Ms. Hunt, for your words. There is so much I am grateful for this year. God is good. More sharing about blessings will be coming.

“Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

Thoughtful Acts

 

Thoughtful Action

In just about a week, Christmas will be here. Excitement and wonders abound! Among the daily news-breaking heartaches will pop up gems of goodness like the cop and the thief.

Thoughtless Action

One such act that will not be widely reported happened to me the other day. I left my purse hanging in a public restroom stall. I KNOW! Dummy! Dummy! Dummy!

Driving down the street, panic ensued! Rushing back, stopping by the Lost & Found counter … no purse. Trying to track through “Find my Phone.” (It’s activated through iCloud, but a message said the phone was offline – frustrating!) Thinking about the calls to make to protect my identity. Praying. Praying.

A security officer! Hope! He takes me to another desk out in the open and “Bingo!” my purse appears!

Thank you, God!!! A woman had noticed it hanging and kindly took the time to go to the desk to report it. She said she noticed it there and that there were other women in the restroom. The woman at the desk must have immediately gone to fetch it. I so thank God for putting a fire under that wonderful woman!

Thoughtful Acts

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a competition on Twitter called 100thoughtfulacts. People were asked to to sign up to do as many as they can of the 100 Acts they had listed. The top “Act-ers” would win an ASUS Transformer Book T100.

SidewalkBut, I have to tell you, it was the warm and fuzzy feelings I got through choosing from the list, that grew and grew with each one I performed! It was fun going through the list, choosing different ways to bless others. Some things we could do: leave an encouraging note on a stranger’s car, drop off anonymous flowers for someone sick in the hospital, write an encouraging message with chalk on the sidewalk, make snowman pancakes for loved ones, pay for the coffee of someone behind you in line, leave the biggest tip you can afford, etc.

Please know ...

 

 

The contest is still going on! Please log onto 100thoughtfulacts and enter for the fun of it, as they are in the last two days. Forget the prize – do it for the good feelings you will receive from surprising loved ones or strangers who might have at just that moment, needed a word or deed of encouragement. It’ll do your mind, body and soul good!

 

And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. 

Hebrews 13:16

Freedom & Faithfulness

 

The Issue

Can’t sleep. I’m up at 4:30am this morning, coughing and thirsty. It’s that time of year when the weather changes and my body protests. Take another allergy pill. Been praying for the headache and coughing to go away. Guess God will take them away in His time as my faith is built up.

More Remedies

* Massaging sinus points on my face

*  Drinking a warm, frothy mug of Vitamin C+

*  A very warm salted water gargle

Ah-h-h, that all helps! While waiting for everything to settle, I turn on the TV.

The Glitch

An old episode of the Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964) is on. Danny’s in court to fight a parking ticket. It’s proven that the parking meter was more than five minutes too fast. (A different situation, but it reminds me of last year, when we visited New Haven Green in New Haven, Connecticut. A local said to return to our parking meter at least five minutes before it expires, as the meter people have a penchant for writing tickets early if they think you’re not coming back in time!)

That fast meter caused Danny to receive a ticket, though he returned within the allotted time.

The Outcome

During closing arguments, the city prosecutor derides Thomas’ profession as an entertainer, saying he’ll probably grandstand and open with a song. Danny Thomas stands up and faces the jury. He says only one song will fit the situation and solemnly quotes, not sings, the first line from the great patriotic anthem, “America.”

“My country ’tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty …”

Thomas went on to point out our freedoms. One being that we have the right to stand and speak up if we feel an injustice is taking place, even if it’s against our own government (which was formed for the people, by the people).

Otherwise, the injustice would continue, affecting more and more people until someone finally stands up to fight it.

Danny won the case.

The Point

He also made a point that is still relevant 60 years later! Our freedoms are not guaranteed to be forever. We must be diligent and protect them when they are threatened.

The Lesson

Well, now I know why I’m up at 4:30am. God has a message for me to share.

If you see an injustice and are in the position to right it, please take action. There are many, many things in this world that we by ourselves can’t change. But, there is one simple thing we can do.

One Last Thought

P r a y.

Pray for guidance and the strength to do the right thing.

Pray for our families.

Pray for friends and others who are hurting and how we can help them.

Pray for our nations’ leaders and the world’s leaders.

Pray for hearts to open up to see other options.

Prayer works wonders.

I just prayed for everyone who reads this.

God bless you.

 

“Happy Veterans Day!”

"Baba"
“Baba”

“Happy Veterans Day, Baba!”

That’s what I would have said to my father, were he alive today. “Baba” served in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was assigned to mess duty and used those skills to open a succession of restaurants years later. He re-enlisted in the the U.S. 14th Air Service Group, 407th Supply and Service Unit that supported the Flying Tigers stationed in China.

His good friend, Staff Sgt. Lewis Yee, taught him how to drive the big tankers hauling fuel for the airplanes. There were harrowing trips driving convoys through The Hump, that treacherous area of the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. The Burma road was a deeply winding route between India and China that was taken with big, unwieldy tankers next to sheer drops that required drivers with nerves of steel to navigate. I’ll tell you more about my father and his friend, Staff Sgt. Lewis Yee, in a later post.

If you see or know a veteran, please, please, take time to thank him or her for their service to our country. It can be any day of the year to do it. We owe them much!

“God Bless America!”

 

 

Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is my ex-Boss: A brief Tribute

This story from behind-the-scenes is a testimony to those who have a beautiful mindset.

Mahesh Nair

Kailesh-Satyarthi

I first met him in the fall of 1996 when he, in an ironed kurta-pajama, passed by me, and whooshed the door open to his small office. I was lazing at my desk, waiting for the Director, who I’d been hired to assist. The morning was overcast and light barely filtered through the window at the entrance, but the pure white of his cotton made the day appear brighter. I was young, and it was my first job.

It took a few months before the Director recommended that I work for Kailash Satyarthi – the Chairperson of Bachpan Bachao Andolan/Save The Childhood Movement (BBA) – whom we fondly call “Bhaisahab.”

His costume though it was bright, had an air of intimidation, because we’d witnessed all our lives in India, the white-adorned politicians who would often vanish after they’d won the elections, not delivering on their promises. Though I knew…

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“Hoda & Kathie Lee, I, too, have advice on taking my daughter out!”

Watched Hoda & Kathie Lee on the Today Show, talking about the former Navy Seal who had rules for his daughter’s future boyfriends: http://www.today.com/parents/rope-tornado-bottle-hurricane-dads-gives-daughters-potential-boyfriends-tough-2D80192078.

It reminded me of the time my daughter came home from college. She and old high school friends decided to meet that night at a local country western club. Three of the guys who lived in the community were coming by to pick her up to meet a couple more girls at the club.

The doorbell rings and a fresh-faced teen greets me. I invite him in and start my spiel: “Our daughter is very precious to us. You are responsible for her tonight. We expect you to treat her with respect and to keep her safe. That goes for the other two girls too.”

I want to meet the other two young men, so we go out to the car and I repeat my “talk.” Afterward, one of the boys says enthusiastically, “I’m going to say the same thing when I have a daughter!” I sure hope he remembers that when/if he has a daughter.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

February 17, 2014

We prepare to leave Granada for San Jose, Costa Rica. The owner says our taxi is coming. Up drives the owner’s son. Hmm …

We get into the car to go to the bus office. A couple of Dutch girls from the hotel join us. We ask how much. He says $5 each, to which we immediately protest loudly! We don’t care that he is going to two different offices – the amount is outrageous! One of the backpackers says firmly, “$1 each.” Faced with three fierce feminine scowls, he nods.

Not a peep from the other male in the car. That moment confirmed my earlier perception that some people will rather be over-charged than cause a ruckus. I have constantly cautioned my husband to remember the current country’s rate of exchange so we aren’t (too) over-charged. Well, he’s on vacation and has a laidback attitude regarding service charges. I think it’s because he knows that Central America is a poorer part of the world and to him, it’s alright if they ask for more than the going rate. If the taxi driver says it’s such and such amount to get to wherever, he says okay. To me, knowingly demanding more than the going rate is gouging. We already pay way more than what locals pay.

Crowded launcha
Crowded launcha

 

At Lago de Attitlan, we were always told Q30. If you paid more than Q25 to ride a launcha to a few villages ’round the lake, you were over-charged. Some tourists were able to bargain down to as little as Q15. Locals, if I remember correctly, pay Q3 to Q5 per person.

 

Three-wheeled tuk-tuks are plentiful in Panajachel
Three-wheeled tuk-tuks are plentiful in Panajachel

 

If you ride a tuk-tuk in Panajachel, the biggest village on the lago, it’s Q5 a person. Locals pay Q1 to Q2 a person.

 

 

 

 

Again, ask a couple of different locals what the going rate would be to take a cab, the bus, etc. When we do, they tell us what they pay and what would be fair for a tourist to pay. We also read travel forums and sites before we left and knew what some of the rates might be. Those actions gave me the confidence to bargain. (Lonnie left negotiating to me as he preferred to play the nice guy in the “Good Tourist, Bad Tourist” game.)

Eventually, Lonnie started showing me his change before pocketing it. A few times I had to swing his open hand with the change back to the merchant and tell him/her that we have more change coming back. We’d get more change and an un-apologetic look. It must be a game to see how observant tourists are.

The rates are quite varied and it CAN get confusing trying to convert them. We saw:

Guatemala: 8 Quetzales = 1 US Dollar

Nicaragua: 25 Cordobas = 1 US Dollar

Costa Rica: 500 Colones = 1 US Dollar

 

Now, back to Granada … we get to the bus office and it’s locked. A woman at the open doorway next door says that they won’t open for a while. We’re taken to another location that is open. The reservation we made is nowhere to be found. A Canadian backpacker says he’s going on a bus that will take us to Costa Rica. He asks if we are going to Monte Verde too. No, we’re going to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and the country’s largest city. He says we can all go on the same bus as it will stop briefly and let him off on the way to San Jose. What a nice guy!

 

Lago de Nicaragua

February 16, 2014

Another warm day in Granada. We decide to get out on the water. Nearby Lago de Nicaragua is the only freshwater lake in the world that has sharks, though a local told me they’re rarely seen. The sharks have been severely overfished and a hold has been put on hunting them. Hopefully, it brings the numbers back up.

It is said that the 365 tiny islands in the lake were made when Volcan Mombacho had a ferocious eruption and spewed bits and parts into the lake. I can see that possibility, as most of the islets are like tiny tree-topped blobs, dotting the waters.

Telephone lines stretch across the lago, connecting homes that are fairly close to each other. Many of the islands we pass are concrete reinforced, allowing for more stability and enlarging surface areas.

The island in the foreground, Isla Jacqueline, looks like paradise. I think I spied a ball court and play area!
The island in the foreground, Isla Jacqueline, looks like paradise. I think I spied a ball court and play area!

The hanging sacs are actually bird nests!
The hanging sacs are actually bird nests!

 

This capuchin monkey's stranded, like on Gilligan's Island. People boat by, but never rescue him!
This capuchin monkey’s stranded, like on Gilligan’s Island. People boat by, but never rescue him!

Please don't throw chip bags on the island. This howler monkey, the capuchin's island-mate, is a curious sort.
Please don’t throw chip bags on the island. This howler monkey, the capuchin’s island-mate, is a curious sort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunchtime! Our guide takes us to an island restaurant. We place our order and enjoy the quiet just before a noisy tourist boat arrives. It becomes pretty crowded as there’s just so much space.

We stop by an island restaurant for their specialty, boneless fried fish. It's a popular tourist spot.
We stop by an island restaurant for their specialty, boneless fried fish. It’s a popular tourist spot.

 

When in Rome ...
When in Rome …

 

On the way back, the driver gently guides the boat through a patch of water plants and cosies up to a tree on an islet. He cuts the engine and reaches out for a closed blossom and proceeds to show us a simple way to “bloom” it:

 

Later, Gerda takes time away from her biking tour buddies for an evening walk around Granada with us. We stop for dessert before strolling over to the plaza. The International Music Festival is a high energy event. Some of the spectators get carried away!

Granada, Nicaragua

Colonial architecture in the town square
Colonial architecture in the town square

February 15, 2014

We finally make it to Granada! It’s already starting to feel HOT. Maybe a visit a month or two earlier would have been better. Oh, well.

Granada’s a quaint city with Spanish influences and is sister city to Guatemala’s La Antigua. It’s said to be the first European settlement in mainland America. If the claim that it’s registered in the official records of the Crown of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile in Spain is true, that, indeed, bespeaks of royal acknowledgement of an exceptional lineage! Granada may have been spared major damage from the Sandinistas in the 1970s – 1980s, but an earlier history of battles and invasions from other countries, a long-running, often violent feud in the mid 1800s with neighboring city, Leon, and other issues have taken their toll.

Although Granada (named after the ancient Spanish city) is not quite as well-maintained as its “sister”, the past decades have seen an attempt to revitalize the city and save its ancient colonial architecture. Judging by the variety of indoor shops and decent eateries here, the city is becoming a more desirable tourist destination.

We stop in the “calle peatonal”, pedestrians only street, to sip a beverage, watch people go by and browse the vendor tables.

An artist adjusts a link before selling Gerda his hand-twisted silver necklace
An artist adjusts a link before selling Gerda his hand-twisted silver necklace

Using just a reed and a snip from small scissors,  this boy creates a heart with arrow through it. At any age, artists work hard to make a living in Central America.
Using just a reed and a snip from small scissors, this boy creates a heart with arrow through it. At any age, artists work hard to make a living in Central America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                    We explore farther and discover the Iglesia de San Francisco. Firefighters from Italy walk by, but Gerda’s too shy to approach them and see if they will trade firefighter patches. (Ah, Gerda! Missed your chance to meet interesting men who share your love of firefighting!)

Iglesia de San Francisco is considered to be the oldest cathedral in Central America. Sadly, the famous robin's egg blue paint seems to have faded.
Iglesia de San Francisco is considered to be the oldest cathedral in Central America. Sadly, the famous robin’s egg blue paint seems to have faded.

Iglesia de San Francisco’s current building is fairly new – in 1524, it had wooden walls and a straw roof. It burned down about 160 years later to be rebuilt as a sturdier structure. In 1856, it was intentionally burned down by the infamous American scoundrel, William Walker. His men set fire to the city when they left, destroying most of it.

Walker was a power hungry mercenary who schemed to become President of Nicaragua with a goal to control all of Central America. Those other Central American countries took exception to the idea. Walker didn’t rule very long, a year perhaps. It’s said that in 1860, he was hunted down and executed in Honduras.

If you miss Catedral de Granada in the town plaza, you're looking in the wrong direction!
If you miss Catedral de Granada in the town plaza, you’re looking in the wrong direction

 

 

 

Catedral de Granada is a boldly painted church in the plaza. The sprawling building is quite prominent!

 

 

Enter a peaceful sanctuary
Enter a peaceful sanctuary

 

 

 

The cathedral’s first structure was built in 1583, destroyed by the previously mentioned 1856 city fire, then completely rebuilt by 1915.

 

 

 

To view more Granada iglesias, visit http://felipedelbosque.wordpress.com. 

 

All around us, the city shows off its bright colors! The Baroque style with Moorish influence is quite evident. Granada is waiting to see if it qualifies for the World Heritage List.

Many styles of architecture abound!
Many styles of architecture abound!

A horse-drawn carriage goes by cheerfully painted houses.
A horse-drawn carriage goes by cheerfully painted houses.

Locals hang around a beautifully detailed gazebo
Locals hang around a beautifully detailed gazebo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in here seems to be slow and easy.

Napping 4-legged resident
Napping 4-legged resident

I was surprised to see sanitarily wrapped vegetables!
I was pleasantly surprised to see wrapped vegetables!

Stopping play to watch visitors
Stopping play to watch visitors

 

Often, you will see darling children, such as this one on the right, on my blog. Except in crowd shots, I always ask for permission to take their images if they are recognizable, be it for a photo or video. It’s a habit from working in media. It’s also the right thing to do. Especially in Central America, parents are very protective of their children. Several times, a negative shake of the head was sent my way and I moved on.

Tip: Please respect the cultures of countries you visit. I noticed that if I very politely and smilingly communicated with locals, they reciprocated. English-speaking locals or ex-pats were very kind to explain local customs.

 

Tip: If you are looking for a change of scenery, Granada offers a low cost of living, attractive incentives for foreign investors such as limited tax breaks and there are few restrictions on foreign ownership. Just be sure to visit before any decisions are made.

 

Volcan Masaya, Nicaragua

February 14, 2014

We had planned earlier to head to Granada. Gerda’s bike tour starts in Granada, so we all decide to travel there by taxi. But … Masaya is on the way. We book rooms and are off to see Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya! It has the distinction of being Nicaragua’s first National park and its largest. The area contains active and inactive craters and calderas. The last eruption was in 2008. It’s part of the Central American Volcanic Belt, running from Volcan Tacana in Guatemala to Volcan Irazu in Costa Rica.

"Wel-come to Ma-sa-ya!"
“Wel-come to Ma-sa-ya!”

We’re warned that we shouldn’t inhale the strong sulphur dioxide fumes for more than 15 minutes. It is amazing to be so close to an active volcano!

Cricket couldn't see through the thick smoke screen
Cricket couldn’t see through the thick smoke screen

The stairs up to the cross are closed, but we’re able to go around and take another path up. I should say, “they” are able to, as I can feel great apprehension beginning to build up in my chest as we begin the climb up. So, I decide to stop, turn around and take shots of the smoky landscape. With shifting wind and heavy plumes of toxic sulphur vapors, I finally head down to catch a clear breath.

Gaseous vapors drift past the cross as Gerda, Lonnie and another visitor explore the terrain after climbing up to the cross
Gaseous vapors drift past the cross as Gerda, Lonnie and another visitor explore the terrain after climbing up to the cross

I DO love horse rides!
I DO love horse rides!

We take a too short horse ride to the path up an inactive volcano to see the grand vistas. Cricket and I stay behind as Lonnie and Gerda hike up along the rim with our taxi driver. On the way here, our driver, Wilmer Jose, was practicing his English and playing his English learning tape for us. Instead of dropping us off at the Centro de Visitantes and leaving, he waited for us to purchase the tickets and took us up to the volcano and craters. So, we asked if he wanted to hang with us and drop us off at our hotel in Masaya, and tomorrow, take us on to Granada. He did! I think it’s his first time at the volcan and to ride a horse. Tip: If going by taxi, confirm with your driver that he will wait for you to purchase a ticket at the visitors center and take you all the way to the volcan’s parking lot. Don’t be left to walk that really long walk like I read someone did on tripadvisor.com.

Many people walk all the way around the rim
Many people walk all the way around the rim

On the way out, we visit the Centro de Visitantes to see colorful exhibits and balcony views of surrounding craters and lakes. A cool way to wind down from a tiring walk.

Idyllic scene
Idyllic scene

An overview of Masaya
An overview of Masaya

Gerda proudly points out her home! Note the dangerous pink lines of a mosaic of shifting oceanic and continental plates.
Gerda proudly points out her home! Note the dangerous pink lines of a mosaic of shifting oceanic and continental plates.

Laguna de Masaya in the distance
Laguna de Masaya in the distance

We finish with a delicious meal and dessert.

End of  a happy Valentine's Day!
End of a happy Valentine’s Day!

February 2014 Nicaragua!

The present situation regarding Central American children seeking refuge in the United States is disturbing. There are strong, emotional pros and cons on both sides of the issue. I won’t go there. I just want you to know the beauty I saw there earlier this year.

In 1524, the Spaniards established two settlements in what is now Nicaragua. The pre-Colombian Indian civilization there was decimated by their cruel acts. Strange foreigners with powerful weapons came ashore, seemingly out of nowhere. They forcibly took land, tore apart families, forced relatives to toil for them and sent others off on slave ships, never to be seen again! And to top it off, the Spaniards brought deadly diseases that no one had ever experienced before, slowly and painfully killing off the population.  

So began a tumultuous history through multiple centuries. From power struggles, becoming a part of the Mexican Empire, breaking away from Spain (1821), an American mercenary becoming Nicaragua’s president (1856), assassination plots, horrendous civil war crimes, terrifying dictatorships, the U.S.’s unwanted presence, the birth of guerrilla warfare, government corruption and the list goes on and on.

Nicaragua may be the largest of Central America’s countries, but it is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. No wonder it is still trying to recover from centuries of turbulent upheavals!

I hope the time we spend here helps a tiny bit towards that recovery. We arrive in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. The plan? Leave the next day for Granada, a city known for having some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country. We spend the night at a backpackers’ lodgings. Oh, joy! Our room has a private bathroom and is air-conditioned.

Next morning, as we prepare to leave for Granada, the owner introduces us to another English-speaking tourist. Gerda’s from Canada. She’s a veteran firefighter from the Northern Territories. Gerda is enthusiastic and persuasive. Very persuasive. She talks us into going with her to Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve, a secluded tropical forest in Ticuantepe, outside of Managua. It’s named after the green Pacific Parakeets known as Chocoyos.

A local taxi takes us on a jarring, pothole-filled ride up, maybe an hour.

Gerda peeks out from the bunkhouse
Gerda peeks out from the bunkhouse

We three are the only overnight guests in the 455 acre tropical forest. We go up a steep, three tiered walkway. Lonnie & I have the bungalow. Gerda has the bunkhouse all to herself. She has electricity, but just a trickle of cold shower water. We have cold water, but no electricity. (The bulb blew out twice.) Out come the headlamps! At least we have mosquito nets. With the two screen-less windows shut at night, it was pitch dark. The cabin could have used a really, really good cleaning, but since the reserve is operated by (wilderness) men, that’s not going to happen.

Alan Pasos is our very competent guide for the morning, evening and 5-hour hikes. He goes home each night after our dinner and two others keep watch overnight. Alan’s English is good enough that we communicate reasonably well. For two days, he leads us on nighttime and early morning walks to the two waterfalls, often pulling out a birding book to identify a species. He took several of the photographs below, often nimbly scurrying up trees and steep terrain!

We walk silently behind Alan, watching for his signal to stop as he listens for animals traversing the brush and trees. We must be quick to see a furry animal slip across the path or rustle through trees, many pairs of hidden eyes following us. Alan finds a BIG, squiggly night crawler. Of course, Gerda has to pick it up!

Some of what we see:

Chocoyero 11
Welcome to adventure!

 

Chocoyero 7
A colorful resident

 

Chocoyero 6
I was surprised to see a little crab scuttle across the path!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocoyero 9
Blue Crowned Motmot

 

Chocoyero 8
Cricket: “Hola, my little cousins!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocoyero 4
A beautifully bushy tail

 

Chocoyero 5
An owl eye butterfly. The eye scares away predators!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocoyero 12
A young owl peers through the brush

 

Chocoyero 10
Alan gets up close and personal to a howler mother and her child

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the days, Alan and his father take Lonnie and Gerda on a mid-day five hour hike. Steep terrain, stringing ropes from tree to tree and unstable paths causing mid-air dangling at times!

That’s not for me.

A hammock is on the cabin porch, tied. It’s so pretty!

Tip: If you see a hammock lying around, ask for help.

I ask. They climb up, wrap and tie the ends. I swing on it, daydreaming, until motion sickness sets in. Time to climb down and write in my journal. Later, I take my cell phone down to the lobby to charge – that’s a pleasant surprise! I bring a puzzle from the suitcase. Spend a little time there before leaving the puzzle for another lazing tourist.

Lonnie comes dragging in, cut and bruised. Gerda bounces in behind him, dimples flashing, eyes alight with the joy of testing one’s endurance! She had wanted the six hour hike, but that would have pushed past Lonnie’s limit.

Lonnie shows his hiking wounds to Cricket
Lonnie shows his hiking wounds to Cricket.

 

Each morning and evening, Alan would lead us to the waterfalls to be amazed at the hundreds of chirping birds roosting in holes in the limestone walls. We peek in a few holes after the birds fly off and there are crickets, too. Alan is so dedicated, making sure we see the beauty of his forest. To me, it’s a jungle, with long, trailing vines and lush foliage. We see so many interesting inhabitants and plants that make up the teeming life of the woodlands!

A 6am walk to the waterfall to hear and see the birds start their day:

Alan’s mother cooks our meals. We eat beans, rice and plantains … three times a day. I find out that plantains can be boiled, fried, grilled, smashed, mashed and sliced. At breakfast, boiled eggs and stewed tomatoes are added. At lunch, boiled eggs are added. At dinner, a piece of chicken is added. There is a cup of delicious fresh squeezed orange juice with meals. Gerda, the ever polite Canadian, asks to meet and thank Alan’s mother in person. Gerda brings treats for the children. Seeing the dirt floors and little chicks running around, we realize how fresh our meals are!

Chocoyero 13
Alan picks oranges along the way for juice later.

 

Chocoyero 15
Family and friends gather for fellowship and prayer

Gerda starts a two-week bike ride through Central America this weekend. She brought school supplies for the tour donation, but decides the elementary school down the road needs it more. We add a monetary gift and start walking toward Escuela San Jose de los Rios.  We visit classrooms and go out to the courtyard where we officially present our gifts to the principal of the escuela, Senor Corea.

Chocoyero 16
Gerda and I sit with one of the classes after passing out bags.  Gerda included Canadian maple leaf pins!

 

While we are passing out bags, the exterminator begins fogging. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get service in an isolated area. They come when they can.

Chocoyero 16
Students gather in the courtyard as classrooms are fumigated

 

If you are planning to visit Nicaragua, consider Chocoyero-El Brujo.

Tip: It is one of a handful of Nicaraguan nature reserves that allows camping. To wake up to screaming howler monkeys or the raucous chatter of thousands of little green parrots starting the day is so cool! You can bring your own gear or reserve the bungalow or a bed in the bunkhouse.

Tip: Contact the reserve as early as possible if you plan to stay there. It may take some time for them to email you back, but it’s worth it. I don’t know if Alan even has international calling on his phone. Gerda tried calling, unsuccessfully, for weeks from Canada to confirm by phone. In Nicaragua, she was able to get through.

You’ll learn a lot with Alan and you’ll be helping a country that can use all the help it can get.

And please tip generously! This is a cooperative that is not government funded. Alan says that the people who maintain Chocoyero are volunteers who are paid ONLY when there are visitors. Life in the forest is hard. Tour companies may bring in daytime visitors, but with their own guides.

You can click on Tripadvisor to read recent reviews.

Sources on Nicaragua:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua

http://wikitravel.org/en/Nicaragua

http://www.infoplease.com/country/nicaragua.html?pageno=1

“Happy July 4th!”

A reminder to my fellow Americans:

This female eagle was seen in Yellowstone Park.
This female eagle was seen in Yellowstone Park.

 

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” ~ from the Declaration of Independence

 

 

 

The teeny, tiny white dot in the background is the eagle. We had a wonderful time!
The teeny, tiny white dot in the background is the eagle. We had a wonderful time!

 

Last week, we visited Yellowstone Park. Matt from Buffalo Bus tours did a great job showing us bison, elk, a bear and deer in the park. More in a later post.

A “Happy July 4th!” shout-out to Em, Miss B., J., K., E., R., M. and all the lovely people we met on the shuttle!

 

This year is the 200th anniversary of our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner:

“God Bless America!”

February 11, 2014 Bus to Nicaragua!

Tuesday

Cricket here. I am named Cricket, not because I am a cricket, but for the famous 1960s actress (Connie Stevens) that was named Cricket in the TV show, Hawaiian Eye. Cricket was a singer. Crickets can usually “sing.” I do not sing. Cricket the singer was very pretty. Soo thinks I am very pretty too!

Head rest covers are the best place to view the countryside!
Head rest covers are the best place to view the countryside!

I am so excited! This is my first bus ride. We take a Del Sol executive bus. It is very nice. Soo says it is much better than ADN or Litigua buses. At our 1:30am boarding, the nice attendant passes out pillows and blankets. At 8am, we transfer buses in El Salvador. Along the way, we have visits from immigration, then transportation agents, a drug sniffing dog and customs inspectors.

Are you my Papa?
Are you my Papa?

 

 

 

We have two meals. One is from Papa John’s Pizza. I am surprised!

 

 

 

 

 

We make friends with a man also going to Nicaragua. Rony has a phone. He calls our pre-arranged taxi driver that we will be arriving later. Rony is a good friend.

As the bus goes by, I see eighteen wheelers a couple of feet deep into rivers. The drivers are washing their big rigs.

Can you see the load of scattered clothes, drying on the river bank?
Can you see the load of scattered clothes, drying on the river bank?

 

Then, I see a woman in the river. (Lower right corner)

What is she doing?

 

 

 

We are finally here! Managua, Nicaragua is a big city. Many taxi drivers are waiting to take passengers away. They are loud. Soo and Lonnie scoop me up and push their way through the crowd. The driver is waiting and off we go on a Nicaraguan adventure!

February 12, 2014 Meet Cricket!

You will love my lovely hometown!
You will love my lovely hometown!

 

 

 

Hola! My name is Cricket. I was born in the central plaza of La Antigua, Guatemala. I am made of twisted wires and two pretty turquoise bead eyes.

Are you my cousin?
Are you my cousin?

 

 

 

 

 

I have looked for other family members, but it seems that they are not nearby. It is good that I am curious and make friends easily.

 

 

 

Let me show you some of the lovely things in my picturesque hometown.Cricket 2

Rooftops are perfect for exercising and reading!
Rooftops are perfect for exercising and reading!

Exotic ice cream creations to tickle your taste buds!
Exotic ice cream creations to tickle your taste buds!

Cricket 9

"Painting" sawdust carpets for Semana Santa
“Painting” sawdust carpets for Semana Santa

Though not considered lovely, the painted public wash tubs have seen decades of dirty clothes.
Though not considered lovely, the painted public wash tubs have seen decades of dirty clothes.

Senor Crepe makes Cricket a complimentary dessert
Senor Crepe makes Cricket a complimentary dessert

 

There are many pretty flowers here.
There are many pretty flowers here.

 

February 6, 2014 Chichicastenango, Guatemala

 

Thursday

Beautiful handwork on huipiels, the embroidered blouses without buttons - just a hole to pull your head through
Beautiful handwork on huipiels, the embroidered blouses without buttons – just a hole to pull your head through

Many of the towns in Guatemala end with “tenango.” I was told it meant “town of.” So, Chichicastenango is “town of Chichi.” Today, we take a shuttle to Chichicastenango, home to the largest textile market in Central America. This is one of two days in the week that vendors bring in their crafts, produce or whatever else they want to sell. As the van picks up passengers from different hotels in the area, we are pleasantly surprised to see Val and Paul, our bungalow neighbors from Tikal!

The monitor collects el bano tickets
The monitor collects el bano tickets

Fresh meat!
Fresh meat!

 

 

We’re told to all meet at Hotel Santo Tomas for the ride home. If you need to find a clean, well-maintained restroom, Santo Tomas has it! Have some quetzales ready as you have to pay for a ticket to use the facilities.

 

 

When bargaining, be bold to get a great price, but please be kind. It’s hard enough to make an honest living in such a poor country.

We walk through the crowded, colorful crafts and textiles areas before heading toward the produce area.

 

 

What ARE these?!?
What ARE these?!?

 

Fresh fruit!
Fresh fruit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the locals eat at market
Where the locals eat at market

 

 

After cutting through a couple of long inner alleyways, we wind up in a very large eating area. We look around in wonder. There are no tourists! Locals are looking at us strangely, probably wondering what we’re doing here. Wow, just discovered the (hidden) dining area of the locals!

 

 

 

El Calvario, the church next to the market was built on hallowed Maya ground. The Maya embraced Catholicism and blended in their cultural rituals to create a unique religious experience.

February 5, 2014

Wednesday

The colorful squares you see are in the cemetary
The colorful squares you see are in the cemetary

IMG_5469

 

We tour Santa Maria de la Concepcion, a small town near Panajachel. Duncan, a local tour guide, says he’s the only one giving tours to Concepcion. In his opinion, the town is a little-known gem.

 

 

 

 

Concepcion 1IMG_5475

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a tranquil little hamlet with a 400 year old church. The bell continues to peal.

 

 

 

There are very few visitors to the sleepy little town.

 

 

Another centuries old building being put to good use
Another centuries old building being put to good use

 

 

On the way back, we stop in Solala and visit the museo. It was dedicated maybe a year or two ago by the queen of Spain!

 

 

 

 

 

The building was originally shorter
The building was originally shorter

 

 

 

In another life, it was a government building.

 

 

 

Back on the streets of Panajachel, we talk to Frank. He’s lived here 20 years. Some of his tips if you are staying in Pana:

*Don’t use the local BAC bank. If there’s an issue at their ATM and it keeps your money, the bank will NOT give you your money back.

*Primavera is the best hotel in town.

*El Bistro has the best steaks.

 

Please refresh the link occasionally when viewing my blog. I have been known to add more information in the form of videos, or possibly more photos, to previous posts!

 

 

February 3, 2014 Lago de Atitlan

What a view of the lago!
What a view of the lago!

 

 

Our second night in Casa del Mundo is in room #17. After room #10’s coziness, this room feels so open. The private terrace is also bigger.

 

 

The casa has picturesque balconies and trailing greenery
The casa has picturesque balconies and trailing greenery

 

Views from all levels of the property are breathtaking!

In the hotel’s drive to reach self-sustainability, a high tech solar-heater system harnesses Lago de Atitlan’s sunshine to provide all the hot water for the property.

 

 

We go hiking. I’m fussed at because I stop to capture so many moments! In the Ben Stiller movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a photographer pauses in shooting the rare sighting of a big feline. I’m sorry, if I can get the shot, I will. Sharing is a good thing. And … my memories will fade, so it’s always nice to have a reminder!

Casa 5Casa 3

Casa 2Casa 2

Casa 6

February 2, 2014 Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, San Pedro

Sunday

Our cases are added to the cargo
Our cases are added to the cargo

Time to leave Panajachel and go across the lago for a few days at La Casa del Mundo, a multi-tiered hotel with cabins snuggled up against the hillside, between the villages of El Jaibalito and Santa Cruz La Laguna. The launcha is full of locals, indigenous peoples of the area.

Locals wear beautiful weavings like this every day! The head wrap is formed with the woman's hair woven into a long cloth.
Locals wear beautiful weavings like this every day! The head wrap is formed with the woman’s hair woven into a long cloth.

A young girl is mesmerized by the water flashing by as her mother holds baby brother
A young girl is mesmerized by the water flashing by as her mother holds baby brother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The boat cuts through the waves!
The boat cuts through the waves!

 

The boat flies, sprays of churning water shooting out! Rain pelts the launcha for a few minutes and a colorful yellow tarp is pulled down, somewhat shielding the front row.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Employee and La Casa del Mundo owner, Bill
Employee and La Casa del Mundo owner, Bill

The ferry pulls up to the private dock and we’re told to leave the two heavy cases, someone would bring them up to our room. It’s about 75 steps up to the main building/dining room. We come too late for breakfast, but are able to order snacks from the menu. Two men with our suitcases on their backs go by, nimbly hopping up the steps like mountain goats! We slowly walk another 75 steps up to our room and run into Bill, the owner, along the way. It took him nine years to construct the first four rooms to rent out. He was working elsewhere and spent his time off building his vision. Now, there are 17 rooms with breathtaking views, each with its own unique personality!

Wake up to a gorgeous day!
Wake up to a gorgeous day!

 

Our room is like a charming little treehouse cabin. The views in two directions are spectacular! It’s been updated and has a shiny stainless steel bathroom sink.

 

 

 

Casa d MundoNot wanting to waste time, we visit San Juan La Laguna. Its dock comes before San Pedro La Laguna, but if you get off, it costs Q5 more! We look around and decide to take a tuk-tuk over to San Pedro. There are lovely weavings that I haven’t seen in Panajachel or elsewhere in Guatemala. The works are more intricate, with different textures.

 

The peaceful cove of San Pedro La Laguna
The peaceful cove of San Pedro La Laguna

We wander further down to the water and have a great view from the second story Dolphin Cafe & Restaurante. The owner, Memeta, nicknamed the “Dolphin,” serves us a delicious pizza before walking us down to the dock and making sure the launcha captain doesn’t over-charge us.            p.s.: Their restroom is really clean!

 

Casa d Mundo 9

 

Back at the casa, we are thrilled with the views of lake, volcanoes and blue skies!

 

 

Casa d Mundo 10

Dinner is a communal affair. We laugh when we meet our closest tablemates and learn that both couples are from Houston! Making friends at a candlelit meal with a big table is good. Everyone has stories to tell!

 

 

February 1, 2014 Reserva Natural Atitlan

Saturday

Tuk-tuks around Panajachel are Q5 a person. I’m sure the locals pay much less. We could have taken a long walk to the Reserva Natural Atitlan, but decide to pay Q10 a person for the ride out of town and up to the 400 acre site. Yes, tuk-tuks sound and look like lawnmowers under three-seat golf carts, but they are fun rides! Quick turns make it easy to play “corners”, the game where you purposely sqeeze the person against the door as the vehicle races around street corners and curves, squealing with laughter! I feel the breeze and grin with joy as lake views rush by. So truly blessed to be here at this moment in my life!

R N Atitlan

Guatemala has exciting volcanoes and forest lands. The Reserva Natural Atitlan, located in the San Buenaventura Valley outside Pananjachel, may not be as large as other preserves, but it has many areas to explore!

 

 

We visit the butterfly sanctuary, walk down to the lake, cross hanging bridges by waterfalls, marvel at a spider monkey vigorously swinging by its tail, and soak in the peaceful forest!

   R N Atitlan

 

Oh, look who we run into again! Nicholas and Johanna, the backpackers we met in Tikal who gave us Equi, the grasshopper. It is so nice to see them again!

Equi the grasshopper made of reeds, reunites with his first "family." Can you see him? He is perched on the rail post.
Equi the grasshopper made of reeds, reunites with his first “family.” Can you see him? He is perched on the rail post.

We end the day with dinner at Circus Bar & Restaurant. Tonight, Carlos, a local flamenco guitarist, invites two brothers to join him on stage.

Three Blog Tips

I just read a comment from one of my posts. The blogger mentioned that she is an “aspiring blog writer” and asked for suggestions. I thought about it and decided to share some basic steps for newbies.

1.   Bloggers are learning all the time. Check out sites like Dear Blogger, greg@dearblogger.org. I follow Greg as he’s generous with his advice. Anyone can ask him anything, whether they are a beginning blogger or well established. He started a YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/narayguy/videos, with tutorials on how to start a blog, different costs of hosted sites, how to make your site more attractive, etc. I started with WordPress.com before following him, but he uses WordPress.org to be able to do some beautiful enhancements to sites using plugins, etc.

If you’re hoping to profit from your blog, there are several big guys out there, but I like Nate Smith, nate@nathanialsmith.com. He is encouraging with good tips and spiritual inspiration. You can search around and follow many others, but look for sites that fit your needs as a blogger.

2.   This is very, very important! Please remember to pull from your passion. Post articles that you are truly interested in, not those that are just current topics that you hope people will link to. Cover subjects you know or that you researched and have a working knowledge of, that might be of value to others.

3.   Mix it up! Some entries I will post describe just what happened and photos. Others, I will add some background about the area we visited, photos and a video or two. Sometimes an opportunity arises that I can’t let go by, like when I learned about The Internet of Things, https://soosoosees.com/2013/10/14/day-30-new-york/. It’s fascinating to me how everything is moving at warp speed!

Experiment with tones and textures. I posted a video of a Savannah, Georgia Trolley Tour in sepia. “Johnny Mercer” came aboard and gave a spiel of his life in music. It begged for that treatment, https://soosoosees.com/2013/10/02/day-16-savannah/.

And, here’s a photo I took of actors in a Tombstone, Arizona re-enactment of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. (p.s.: The gunfight wasn’t really in the corral!) Thought it would look more striking with texture and a feel of the Old West. Edited it on my iPhone in Snapseed, blurring present day shoppers and vehicles in the background with TouchReTouch. Both are free apps. It could have been nice in black and white, but I do like tints!

Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers are ready
Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers are ready

There are plenty more tips I could give, but off the top of my head, these three simple steps will help you on your way!

January 31, 2014 Lago de Atitlan

January 31, 2014

AtitlanWe cross the lake to San Marcos La Laguna, a village known for wonderfully restorative yoga and meditation retreats. Unless you enjoy hiking, launchas (boats) are the way to reach neighboring communities.

Glistening streams of the lago
Glistening streams of the lago

Once you land, some of the villages have tuk-tuks to take you farther inland. Some also have pickups that offer rides in their truck beds. Hop in and hold on tight! It’s all part of an excellent adventure!

Panajachel vendors hope last minute shoppers will come by.

Sundown in Panajachel
Sundown in Panajachel

We dine at Guajimbo’s, a Uruguayan restaurant. The food is so good! There’s live music, dogs wandering the tables and shoeshine boys buffing clients’ shoes as they eat.

Guajimbo's Uruguayan restaurant is packed on a weekday!
Guajimbo’s Uruguayan restaurant is packed on a weekday!

We stop by another restaurant for dessert and music. Lonnie watches someone from the kitchen walk out and come back with his dessert in hand. It’s like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor!Panajachel3

January 30, 2014 Lago de Atitlan

Thursday

View on the way to Lago de Atitlan
View on the way to Lago de Atitlan

We pass a fancy chicken bus!
We pass a fancy chicken bus!

Bye-bye La Antigua, hel-l-o Panajachel! “Pana” is one of several villages surrounding lovely Lago de Atitlan. Atitlan was once a volcano. It’s now filled with water and is such a peaceful lake.

Hotel Utz Jay
Hotel Utz Jay

 

 

Our room at Utz Jay is a big room compared to others we’ve had. Windows have great views of the gardens. The water is hot with good shower drainage.

 

 

Strolling down a street in Panajachel
Strolling down a street in Panajachel

 

We start chatting with a couple on the main street. Sheila & Brian have a non-profit in town. They are dining at Chinita’s Chinese Restaurant tonight before going to Circus Bar to listen to flamenco guitarists. They invite us to meet them.

 

 

Pana 5

 

 

Lonnie stops for a slice of German Chocolate cake, Guatemalan style, at Cafe Kitsch. Not bad. A guy next to us strikes up a conversation. He says his girlfriend works at Chinita’s. What a coincidence! He also says today is the start of Chinese New Year. We forgot! It’s the Year of the Horse! What better way to celebrate than with food?!?

 

Pana 5

 

Dinnertime! Chinita’s on the main road. She came years ago and never left. Charlie, a guy from our shuttle in, join the table.There is no New Year’s special on the menu, b-u-u-u-t … they are preparing a special meal for the kitchen crew. We beg Chinita to sell us an order. Boy, it’s just like eating at home! We send the kids greetings from Panajachel.

Brian, Bill, Sheila, Lonnie and Charlie
Brian, Bill, Sheila, Lonnie and Charlie

 

Bill, a local, is tonight’s entertainment. Lonnie requests Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” Bill invites me to duet and I do! Dogs, street vendors and a kid asking for money wander in and out.

 

 

Brain, Sheila, bongo drummer, guitarist, Soo, Lonnie
Brain, Sheila, bongo drummer, guitarist, Soo, Lonnie

 

Later, we join Sheila & Brian at Circus Bar. It’s really more of a restaurant than a bar and is the oldest such place in Panajachel. There’s another one in Antigua, but it’s not as much fun!

 

 

January 29, 2014 Casa Santo Domingo

Wednesday

Bronze in the lobby
Bronze in the lobby

 

Casa Santo Domingo is a grand hotel with beautiful gardens, pocket museos, workshops and quiet corners of beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casa Santo Domingo garden

 

 

The hotel is 25 years old. The ruins that it has absorbed into its structures was built in 1538 as a convent, or monastery, depending on how you interpret the two words.

Crypts
Crypts

 

 

 

It’s surprising to me that so much of the convent survived as the quake started in July and aftershocks continued until December!     Casa Santo Domingo altar

 

 

The convent came crashing down during the 1773 Santa Marta earthquake. The quake was so named as it started on the day designated to honor Saint Martha.   Santo Domingo

 

 

We stroll the grounds, admiring so many amazing views of the ruins.

 

 

 

The candle workshop offers candlemaking classes!

Casa Santo Domingo 3

A potter decorates a mug at the back of the candle shop
A potter decorates a mug at the back of the candle shop

A worker climbs down from the supply area in the back of the candle shop. I believe that is part of the ruins jutting out!
A worker climbs down from the supply area in the back of the candle shop. I believe that is part of the ruins jutting out!

January 28, 2014 Cerro de la Cruz, Antigua

Tuesday

Many Latin American cities have religious statues, such as crosses, overlooking them. Antigua’s stone cross is a symbol of its strong faith in God’s love. We take a tuk-tuk up to Cerro de la Cruz, Hill of the Cross, and pay a small admission price. The tourist police are visible and we feel safe. A local warned that if there were no police, DO NOT STAY, not even in daytime!

Volcan Agua and La Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz
Volcan Agua and La Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz

We are blessed with a decent view of the city and surrounding area.

Cerro de la Cruz 2

Lonnie makes a friend
Lonnie makes a friend

Walk a little farther back up the hill and you will see an impressive statue
Walk a little farther back up the hill and you will see an impressive statue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cerro de la Cruz

 

Fantastic views along the walkway to the cross
Fantastic views along the walkway to the cross

So glad to see the tourist police on the job!
So glad to see the tourist police on the job!

 

 

 

 

We strike up conversations with visitors to the park. We ask so many questions that someone wants to know if we’re thinking of moving here. One local tells how she’s from the states, but married a Guatemalan. He works, but his salary is not large, so they live simply. They’d love to live in the states, but wouldn’t be able to make it with her pension. Another, a Canadian ex-pat who married a Guatemalan, is thriving! He’s a business owner and his wife also has her own business. He wouldn’t live anywhere else. They own several houses and their child attends private school. So many with money are living in La Antigua that the locals are being slowly squeezed out.

 

 

 

It takes about 10 minutes to get down the paved concrete walkway that ends near 1st Avenue.

 

 

 

 

Tipical Antiguenos
Tipical Antiguenos

Lunch at Tipical Antiguenos Restaurante is alright, but salty.

We’ve been told Maya didn’t have salt or sugar before the Spaniards came, but now they use both liberally! The restaurant is also very typical of some of the rural eateries in that I have to scoop water out of a barrel to flush the toilet.

Interesting ingredients can go into chocolate!
Interesting ingredients can go into chocolate!

Choco Museo gives a history of the cacao bean, holds chocolate making classes, offers free chocolate tastings and chocolate tea!

 

 

 

 

La Antigua 4

 

 

 

Dinner at Hector’s, listed as the #2 best restaurant in La Antigua. Seats about 25 and has only one overworked waitress tonight. The food is wonderful, but there’s something wrong about the practice of an automatic tip added to the bill when the service is lacking.

 

January 27, 2014 Volcan Pacaya, La Azotea Cafe Finca

Monday

View along the trail up
View along the trail up

So exciting! Today, we go up Volcan Pacaya. It erupted the week before we came and flights were cancelled. Thank God, everything settled down and we had no problem flying in. I start wheezing as we begin the 1 1/2 hour ascent, so I get a horse for Q100 ($12.50). A group member calls me, “Princess” as I’m the only one riding. I tell Two-Hats Tom to leave me alone, I’m still on meds for an upper respiratory infection!

My horse, Valente, brings up the rear of the tour. His handler stops often along the trail to break off a leaf here, a bloom there, and explains how locals gather resources from the forest. His English is better than the park assigned guide’s.

This leaf's underside is velvety soft. It can be used in cheese quesadillas or as emergency toilet tissue!
This leaf’s underside is velvety soft. It can be used in cheese quesadillas or as emergency toilet tissue!

I think I was told that these berries, when mature, are used in dyes.
I think I was told that these berries, when mature, are used in clothing dyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A safe distance from the main cone of Volcan Pacaya.
A safe distance from the main cone of Volcan Pacaya.

There’s a constant vapor cloud. We’re not allowed to climb up to the rim, though I’ve seen pictures of people near its lava flows.

Jadwiga and Two-Hats Tom have a great view!
Jadwiga and Two-Hats Tom have a great view!

Recent eruptions give locals concern as Pacaya sits on a magma chamber, making it very unstable. It produces hundreds of explosions each day, causing more lava to flow down.

The views are wonderful. We can even see Guatemala City!
The views are wonderful. We can even see Guatemala City!

A 1961 eruption was unexpected and lasted almost a month! In 1962, a collapse near the volcan’s summit, possibly caused by a volcanic vent, resulted in a pit crater.

Heaven seems closer up here
Heaven seems closer up here

Pacaya’s 2010 eruption was so powerful that it caused the main cone to collapse. The volcan is listed at 8,373 ft., but I don’t know if it was re-calculated after that event.

More Pacaya information can be seen at: www.volcanodiscovery.com/pacaya.html‎, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacaya‎ and volcano.oregonstate.edu/pacaya‎.

More shots of our hike: http://www.qwiki.com/v/j3JT6pga

In the afternoon, we take a slow tour at a local cafe finca (coffee farm).

January 26, 2014 La Antigua

Sunday

Reminders
Reminders

 

We attend Iglesia Del Camino, the only Spanish to English speaking church in town. It’s 10 years old and makes a “joyful noise unto the Lord!” Ah-h-h, my soul is revived!

 

James, Soo & Lonnie
James, Soo & Lonnie

After service, we lunch across the street. We see the other Iglesia Del Camino visitor from today’s service. I go out and ask if he’d like to join us and he does! James says he came in last week to teach at a local English school. He’s also from the states. Less than a year ago, he quit a corporate job, took Spanish and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes and applied to teaching positions in Central America. He’s now living his dream!

James heads out and we wander …

How wonderful that these  purple blossoms come out in time for Easter!
How wonderful that these purple blossoms come out in time for Easter!

Two young vendors take a  break in the shade
Two young vendors take a break in the shade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artisan carefully smooths out a jade piece
Artisan carefully smooths out a jade piece

 

 

Antigua generale

 

 

 

 

Antigua bldg

Evening in Antigua is beautiful.

Palace of the Generals
Palace of the Generals

The sun's fading rays
The sun’s fading rays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proverbs 25:5  As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.

January 25, 2014 La Antigua

Saturday

The minivan shuttle in Guat City drops everyone off in Antigua’s central plaza, Parque Centro. La Antigua is technically a town as there are less than 100,000 residents, but because of it’s importance in Guatemalan history, it’s considered a city.

Casa Cristina
Casa Cristina

We grab a tuk-tuk to Casa Cristina. It’s an older property, pretty much like the rest of the city. Our room isn’t ready so Rosario puts us up on the more expensive second floor for a couple days at no extra charge. Nice! The room is small but quaintly furnished with lovely pieces. There’s complimentary coffee and sweet breads in the morning and it’s near Iglesia La Merced, an easy walk to Parque Centro.

*Make friends with locals. Rosario and her daughter are very helpful. They give advice on what to pay for tuk-tuks at various distances, favorite restaurants, acceptable tips to different service people, what to expect to pay and wait time at the only chiropractic clinic in town, etc. Rosario offers guidebooks and leisure reading books. The guidebooks are a little dated, but Guatemala hasn’t changed that much.

Pedestrians-only around the Santa Catalina Arch
Pedestrians-only around the Santa Catalina Arch

 

“Es muy bonita!” We walk and walk and walk. Everywhere, photographers with big cameras and even bigger zoom lenses stop and drop tripods for gorgeous views.

 

Can you imagine how massive this ruin used to be?!?
Can you imagine how massive this ruin used to be?!?

 

 

 

I don’t have such equipment and am happy to use what I do have. An old Canon and iPhone are my constant companions.

 

 

 

Antigua 3

 

 

Any direction one turns, history shines.

 

 

We stop at Delicias Quetzaltecas Cafe for a snack. The owner hears I have tummy problems and offers a special tea of chamomile, ginger and mint to go along with the best tasting tamal I’ve had in Guatemala. So good and of course l feel better!

January 24, 2014 Flores

Friday

Tikal minivanWe take the shuttle back to Flores. It’s basically a long minivan and really kinda fun. Tourists aren’t the only riders. Locals are picked up and dropped off along the way. Friends happily greet each other, chattering and laughing easily.

Flores taxi

 

Beware taxi drivers that negotiate to take a group of travelers over and drop you all off at the first stop, demanding more money to take you to your hotel.

 

 

Flores tuk tuk

 

The streets are cobblestone and sidewalks are uneven. We refused and found a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) to take us to our hotel for Q10.

 

 

Flores Casa Amelia

 

 

We had a return reservation with Casa Amelia. It’s named after Amelia and her granddaughter is named after her. There are nicer hotels, but this was affordable and convenient – it’s right by the water and near many restaurants and shops. Well, really, everything is near everything else – walking all the way around the island takes about 15 minutes!

 

Flores lake

 

The mall across the bridge in Santa Elena has a dock at the back. Several steps lead down to it – a dock under water. For some years now, the water in the lake is slowly rising. I wonder if this is part of a cycle.

 

Four days ago, when we first arrived in Flores, we booked our return bus trip from Flores to Guatemala City and a shuttle on to La Antigua. We had walked over to a local travel agency that was near the hotel and had good reviews on Tripadvisor. The owner was very pleasant and stayed open late to work with us.

This morning, we’re chatting with another traveler. She went over to Santa Elena’s mall, found the ADN kiosk and bought a ticket for about half of what our individual tickets cost! We rush back to the travel agent and get a nice big “rebate.” I understand that businesses need to make money, but that was excessive for just making a couple of phone calls. I remember preparing for this trip and reading that travel agents provide a great service and are here to assist travelers, and contrary to popular opinion, are not here to get all they can. Maybe that’s true of the majority of agents.

*This experience just reminds us to do our homework and shop around first!

We’re not sleeping over. At 8pm, we board the overnight bus. Yes, the roomy seats are bigger than the average and there are footrests. No, I do not recommend the supposedly upgraded ADN. When I ask the bus driver a question, he very rudely answers with an “I-can’t-be-bothered” frown.

The onboard toilet is smelly! When I have to go back to my seat to get a headlamp (to see in the dark cubicle) and husband (to hold the door with the broken lock from swinging out) and tissue, it is NOT a good trip.

*There are upgraded buses. Confirm when booking that yours is indeed the executive level.

 

 

January 23, 2014 Tikal

Thursday

The first day we’d arrived in the park, we bought tickets and went in after 2:30pm. (The sunset tour started at 3:30pm.) Even though tours for Tikal Inn guests are free, park entry is not. We’d read that you can get tickets and enter the park after that time and be able to use the same tickets to get into the park the next day. IF … you come in the next day during regular hours of operation, that is true. The sunrise tour starts before regular hours so we still had to buy (reduced price) tickets. Tikal Don’t let Tikal Inn’s unappealing front entryway throw you. The overhang is sadly in need of major repair, the lobby area worn, but pass through it to see a pristine pool and beautifully maintained lawns leading to the cabins. The waitstaff is very nice, especially Oscar. Complimentary breakfasts and temple tours add value (though the guides could use more English lessons!). The room is very utilitarian and the the tub drains very slowly, but there’s a clothes rod with several shelves. Electricity only works 6am-8am and 6pm-10pm, so you’ll need to be quick about it if coming back from the sunset tour. (Yesterday, we came back by 8pm, went straight to dinner in the dining room before getting back to shower before the lights went out!) A nice touch was the complimentary 1.5 liter of water.

Val and Paul relaxing in the casual Tikal Inn lobby area.
Val and Paul relaxing in the casual Tikal Inn lobby area.

 

 

We made friends with Val and Paul, a Canadian couple.   Tikal Jaguar Inn

 

 

 

Today, we move over to Jaguar Inn. It is next door and even closer to the park entrance. Our room is a lovely improvement. We were greeted with a complimentary 20 oz. bottle of water. And, the lights and fan work ALL the time – YAAY! I heard the pool wasn’t up to snuff, but they have a computer for guests and the restaurant’s restrooms with outside sinks are clean and updated (unlike Tikal’s). The dining room is connected to the front desk, updated, roomy and with beautiful picture windows.

Nicolas and Johanna with Equi
Nicolas and Johanna with Equi

We say good-bye to Johanna and Nicholas, backpackers who sat next to me on top of Temple IV yesterday. An Equadorian friend had given them a grasshopper made from reeds. They give Equi to us because they know he would be crushed in the backpack. They’ve hitchhiked all over the world. After a short wait, a ride materializes and they’re gone!

 

We speak to, Caesar, a U.S. raised park guide not associated with the inn who very helpfully arranges for a canopy tour driver to pick up our suitcases and drop them off at Jaguar, at no charge, before taking us to the ziplines.

Tikal Zipline After a “Super” zip tour, we cross the road to lunch. There, Equi meets a real live tarantula. Tikal Tarantula Dinner at Jungle Lodge, the first lodgings in Tikal. Archeological teams stay there as it’s closest to the park. It’s bigger, nicer and has fancier food. The rooms are spacious with high-beamed ceilings and mosquito nets (Tikal Inn and Jaguar Inn don’t have nets) and have full electricity 24/7. One of my favorite things to do here is digging around their ice cream case, the only one in Tikal!

We walk back to Jaguar Inn, using our flashlights.

Jaguar Inn's charming bungalows
Jaguar Inn’s charming bungalows

Jaguar's cozy camp area
Jaguar’s cozy camp area

 

January 22, 2014 Tikal National Park

Wednesday

We join the tour in front of the hotel at 4:30am. With headlamps on, we play follow-the-leader through twisting, uneven trails through the dark, silent forest.

Temple IV comes into view and we trudge the many flights of wooden stairs up to the top. I am not comfortable with high places. I’ll go, but not very happily. It’s when we get where we’re going that I’ll appreciate the surroundings. So, ’til then, I avoid looking straight down and feeling rising waves of panic.

If you come to see the sun rise in Tikal, prepare to be disappointed. Yesterday was the perfect morning! People told us it was one of just two sunrises in the past two months. Not today. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s January, but we need jackets against the chilly winds.

 

 

 

We ask why restorations are so obvious. This is so there is no question that there has been a repair. You can see the original work and know where it had to be reinforced and still maintain the authenticity of the original structure.

Temple III is the only temple in the city made of volcanic stone that is only found in North and East Peten. They had to travel far to bring the stone here and no one knows why.

We walk to the front of the park and visit the two museos, a laboratory and the vendors.

These stelae are authentic!
These stelae are authentic!

Could this be part of an original stela still in the ground?!?
Could this be part of an original stela still in the ground?!?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another original carving
Another original carving

Tikal museo 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tikal purse

I love how there’s a post office in the park! It’s a breeze buying postcards and plopping them down on the counter for that “special” Tikal postage stamp. One of my very favorite souvenirs is a woven purse I bargain for in the vendors’ stalls across from the main souvenir building. It’s zippered, with the same scene woven in slightly different colors on each side.

Happy with the day, we walk back, munching ice cream bars from Jungle Lodge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 21, 2014 Flores to Tikal

Flores

Tuesday

We enjoy a nice view from our breakfast table before taking the complimentary shuttle to Tikal. At first, we had thought to do what some tourists do – stay in Flores and take a day trip to Tikal. We decided to stay in a hotel at the entrance to Tikal National Park that gives complimentary guided sunset and sunrise tours at the ruins.

Isla de Flores is calm. Nothing much seems to be happening. Tourists wander around, taking in the serenity and browsing the little shops.

If you’re in a rush to get to Tikal, private transport will be faster than this morning’s shuttle. It’s a little late for our 7:30am pickup. We transfer to another shuttle and then we wait quite a while for the airport group to arrive.

Daylight shines on Tikal as we are dropped off. We’ll stay at Tikal Inn for two days before moving next door to Jaguar Inn for a day. Both are right across the road from Tikal National Park. It’s a bit of a ways to our cabin. Many of the travelers we’ve seen have large backpacks. Maybe we could have traveled lighter …

Down a long sidewalk ...
Down a long sidewalk …

single-file ...
single-file …

and onto a wider path
and onto a wider path

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sunset tour starts at 3:30pm. There’s no “real” sunset, just the light drifting away toward the East. These ruins could be the largest concentration of restored Mayan temples and buildings in Central America. There are many, many more buildings in Tikal, overgrown with greenery, looking like grassy mounds. There just aren’t enough volunteers to unearth them.

It's a steep, winding trail to the Great Plaza
It’s a steep, winding trail to the Great Plaza

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buried treasure
Buried treasure

The stelae in the plaza are replicas
The stelae in the plaza are replicas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 20, 2014 Rio Dulce to Isla de Flores

Monday

Yesterday, Jacqui and Brian left for Tikal. We had breakfast together. With big hugs, we promised to keep in touch.

Daylight fades on the Rio Dulce
Daylight fades on the Rio Dulce

 

 

In the evening, we went down the river to Hotel Vinas del Lago and watched a Super Bowl playoff game with our dinner. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dock covered in real grass!

 

 

 

Fronteras1

 

 

A motorcyclist eyes a man carrying live chickens down the street
A motorcyclist eyes a man carrying live chickens down the street

Today, we leave for Isla de Flores before going on to Tikal. Time to leave the peaceful sweet river. We wait in Fronteras for the bus to Isla de Flores. The lovely colors of contemporary Mayan dress can be seen everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The daily lives of residents is interesting.

 

 

 

Behind us is the tiny island that houses a museo
Behind us is the tiny island that houses a mus

Four hours later we arrive in Isla de Flores. On the ride, we make friends. My new pal was born in Guatemala, adopted and raised in the United States. Years ago, she began coming to vacation in Guatemala. She has an affinity for this beautiful country and her Spanish is improving.

 

 

View from our room at Casa Amelia's
View from our room at Casa Amelia’s

 

 

The city is jam packed full of buildings. There isn’t much green space but the island is very clean.

 

 

Flores 3

 

I buy a scarf from Chick Boss, a shop on a mission. Many families benefit from jewelry and accessories made and sold in this shop.

 

 

 

Flores 4

 

We eat at La Luna. The colorful lights and decor are very nice, the food was alright. I just think the fish was a bit overcooked.

 

Flores 5

 

 

Dessert at Sarita, a popular ice cream chain.

January 18, 2014 Fronteras, Livingston

Rio D plank

Saturday

Today, we walk to Fronteras, the nearby town, for breakfast. The path goes from wooden planks and dirt roads through forest trails to asphalt streets.

It's early and this four-footed local needs a bit more shut-eye
It’s early and this four-footed local needs a bit more shut-eye

 

 

 

Locally sourced produce
Locally sourced produce

Open market
Open market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We eat at Bruno’s before wandering around town. It’s Saturday, so people are out for market day.

It's worth a visit to the old fort
It’s worth a visit to the old fort

 

In the afternoon, we ride a fast launcha to Livingston. Along the way, the driver slows so that we have a great view of Castillo de San Felipe del la Lara …

 

 

Can you see the Great White Heron, or is it a Great Egret???
Can you see the Great White Heron, or is it a Great Egret???

 

 

 

a small island with birds …

 

 

 

We can only dip our feet in for a short while in the tiny little hot spring
We can only dip our feet in for a short while in the tiny little hot spring

 

 

 

a small hot spring …

 

 

 

A young girl canoes out to sell us trinkets
A young girl canoes out to sell us trinkets

 

 

 

brief stops in a few small coves …

 

 

 

Canyon gorge's limestone walls
Canyon gorge’s limestone walls

 

and a ride through the gorge of a limestone canyon on the way. The canyon’s beautiful white limestone walls are covered with rich … green … overgrowth. How disappointing. Well, the walls are quite tall.

 

A view of the Gulf of Honduras from Livingston's dock
A view of the Gulf of Honduras from Livingston’s dock

Livingston is where the Rio Dulce empties into the Gulf of Honduras. It’s named after Edward Livingston, member of a prominent family that immigrated from Scotland. He was active in the Democratic-Republican political party organized by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1791-93 before it split into two parties. In 1801, he was U.S. Attorney for the district of New York while also serving as Mayor of New York. Edward wrote the Livingston Codes, the foundation upon which the United Provinces of Central America based their law in the early 1820s. The provinces later became Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Family transport
Family transport

Unfortunately, Livingston is not a very pretty town. There are restaurants and gifts shops up and down the main street, but the landscape slowly changes as we leave the area and head down to the shore to visit the Garifuna community. There are other communities of Afro-Caribbeans, Maya and Ladino peoples, but I will concentrate on the Garifunas. 

A colorful stall
A colorful stall

In the mid-1600s, a ship or two, depending on which version you have, sank off the coast of St. Vincent. Many slaves survived and blended in with the Carib Indians. They intermarried and became the Black Carib, or Garinagu. They are better known as Garifunas, the name of their culture and language. In 1796, the Black Caribs joined the French to battle the Brits. The Brits won and their enemies were forced to leave. The Garinagu were allowed to go to Honduras. Eventually, many migrated to Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Most of the Garifuna in Central America are near the sea
Most of the Garifuna in Central America are near the sea

 

An elderly gentleman greets us as we pass him. We stop and ask if we are going in the right direction. He says he is going there and can show us the way. We gladly fall in!

 

 

 

Julio is enjoying his retirement in Livingston
Julio is enjoying his retirement in Livingston

 

Julio is Garifuna and Spanish. He grew up in Livingston. Said he loved growing up there as a child, but the future wasn’t very bright. When the opportunity arose, he left for Los Angeles, then New York – two cities with the largest concentrations of Garifunas in the United States. He made a decent living and sent money home to the family. Thirty years later, Julio retired and moved back, to the memories of his childhood. When he was growing up, it was a beautiful little community with not many people. It has changed.

 

Livingston 16

The air is quiet. Julio says there is a mass for dead relatives at church and many are there today. Waves gently roll over the sand. The peaceful shoreline belies the sad state of this community. It’s like the Guatemalan government forgot about the Garifunas and their needs.

 

 

Many can't afford to feed their animals and let them run loose to find food
Many can’t afford to feed their animals and let them run loose to find food

 

 

There is no garbage service, so trash litters roadsides and where ever one wishes to drop food wrappers and containers.

 

 

 

Livingston 15

 

A dilapidated nightclub, an abandoned, partially built apartment building and other uninhabited buildings are sad reminders of developers’ dashed hopes.

 

 

The owner proudly poses by her sign
The owner proudly poses by her sign

We arrive at Gamboa Place, an authentic Garifuna “restaurant” to taste a favorite local dish, Tapado. It’s a seafood soup, eaten with a whole fried fish. The woman who owns it is another of those who left to find work and send money home. She went to Belize, where there is a large Garifuna community, before coming home and opening her own business. She said Belize has been making more of an effort to save the Garifuna culture and language, but it’s a struggle. It is said that there are approximately 300,000 descendants around the world, with less than 100,000 in Central America and only 90,000 native speakers left.

No octopus, but there's conch!
No octopus, but there’s conch!

Julio is comfortable eating at an outdoor restaurant where I notice that a man is washing dishes in well water. We are happy that the soup will be boiled and the fish fried. It takes a long while before we get our food. It finally arrives and is delicious!

 

Wicked looking eyes!
Wicked looking eyes!

 

 

A curious dog comes by to check out the food and is shooed away. One feline visitor is quite upset we didn’t share fish bones.

 

 

 

 

 


Livingston 20

 

On the trip back to Rio Dulce, we are like the water taxi. People are dropped off and others are picked up. Brian made a new friend at one of the stops.

January 17, 2014 Rio Dulce

Friday

What a relaxing environment! Tortugal’s bungalows are rustic and quite charming.

Love the roomy mosquito net!
Love the roomy mosquito net!

Dining by the water, walking along the dock, wandering the trails, gazing at the bobbing boats …Rio D dock

Castillo de San Felipe de la Lara
Castillo de San Felipe de la Lara

 

We hop in a launcha for the short ride to Castillo de San Felipe de la Lara in Rio Dulce National Park. It’s very close – we can see it from Tortugal’s deck. There was a discussion on kayaking over, but it’s a bit windy and I’m not a strong paddler.

View from above the drawbridge
View from above the drawbridge

The Spanish colonial fort was built in 1644 to protect the port of San Antonio de las Bodegas from pirate attacks. The location is at the narrowest part of the river that travels all the way to the Gulf of Honduras into the Carribean Sea. At night, a chain was stretched across the river from the bank to the fort to keep out uninvited visitors. Unfortunately, that and the moat with drawbridge couldn’t protect it from being destroyed and looted several times.

One of the cannons found upriver
One of the cannons found upriver

In 1688, the fort was rebuilt … again. This time, the addition of more ramparts and guard stations stopped the attacks. In 1956, the fortification was beautifully restored. During the restoration, a search for the original cannons found them upriver from the fort! We didn’t know we’d need a light to explore the dark lower level of the fort, so I pull out my phone and use the flashlight on my Camera+ app.

 

 

 

Souvenirs and food are a hop, skip and jump from the fort!
Souvenirs and food are a hop, skip and jump from the fort!

Nowadays, after the tour, you can stroll the grassy lawns, pick up souvenirs and buy some local food before leaving.

Peaceful river
Peaceful river

 

 

 

 

 

The river is beautiful as night falls.

 

 

 

 

We have pizza & movie night on deck. Watching “Captain Phillips”, a thriller based on the true story of present day high seas piracy, is a fitting end to the day.

Pizza, popcorn and Tom Hanks, under the stars!
Pizza, popcorn and Tom Hanks, under the stars!

January 16, 2014 Rio Dulce

Thursday

The taxi driver we used yesterday is taking us to the Litigua bus station this morning. We’ll be listening to water lapping against the dock in Rio Dulce tonight!

He’s late. We wait. An older man waves at us from his taxi. We shake our heads and continue waiting. I see a pick-up with a mounted machine gun in front of a hotel. Half a dozen black vehicles are lined up in the hotel’s curved driveway. In relatively safe Zona 10, machine gun wielding soldiers/security officers are a common sight, but this group means business!

VIP escort
VIP escort

Ten minutes later, we decide to walk over to the certified taxi line. Our driver walks by. “Hey, Marlon!” He is nonchalant. He says his father is taking us. (How would we know that?!? My internal radar should have kicked in.) He takes us over to the man who waved at us earlier. We get in, all the while his father is chuckling with amusement. (Spoiler alert: His good humor isn’t going to last.)

It's a bit startling seeing a man hanging from the local bus, kinda like a stunt man!
It’s a bit startling seeing a man hanging from the local bus, kinda like a stunt man!

Tip: Take the white certified taxis. The trendy, late-model taxis are not considered safe.

After about 20 minutes in the mounting early morning traffic, the landscape changes to more mountainous scenery. I shoot my husband a sideways glance and say it looks like we’re headed out of town! We hurriedly tap Marlon’s father on the shoulder and franticly shake our heads – “WRONG WAY!!! Litegua, not Antigua!”

BIG Tip: Going to a foreign country? Learn as much of the language as possible so as to avoid miscommunications!

He pulls onto the side of the road, waits for cars to pass, reverses gears, going backwards to reach a break in the highway to make a quick U-turn. This is a busy thoroughfare, mind you, so it’s a little hairy! We swing into bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling towards town. One recognizable word he’s muttering is “Idiot!” We finally arrive and miss the bus by 10 minutes. The next bus to Rio Dulce is several hours later. When things like this happen, I try to take it in stride. There’s a reason God wants us to experience this – just wait. It may take a while, but something good will come of it.

This mother at the bus station reluctantly gave permission to be photographed. I'm glad she did!
This mother at the bus station reluctantly gave permission to be photographed. I’m glad she did!

The Litegua bus is comfortable, but the restroom doesn’t work. It’s going to be a long 4 to 5 hour ride. Unclean/pay-to-use restroom stops along the way to Rio Dulce are a discouraging foretaste of what to expect the next two months. *Sigh*

It’s dusk when we arrive in Frontera, the town the Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”) flows by. Most people refer to the town as Rio Dulce. The river starts here after streaming out of the east side of Lago de Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake.

Tip: There are a couple of ATMs in Frontera, but you might want to go to one of the guarded ATMs in Guat City (or the big town you’re coming from) before arriving. If you decide to use U.S. dollars, merchant exchange rates will be in their favor. Dollar bills must be relatively new, with no folds or tears, or merchants may refuse them.

Now I see why we were destined to miss the first bus – God wants us to have company! Another couple (who missed their bus too!) is also going to the same hotel, Tortugal (“the place of the turtle”) Hotel & Marina. Jacqui and Brian are Australians and we work together to get a launcha to the hotel, not far across the lake. There is a footpath, but it’s not recommended for tourists after dark. A local is kind enough to call the hotel for us and the boat is coming. Darkness rolls across the water as we sit and get acquainted. By the time we all arrive at the hotel’s dock, we’re comfortable with each other. At dinner overlooking the river, Jacqui comes over to our table and suggests we all go exploring together during our stay. Yay – God is good! If we had not missed the first bus, we would have been eating separately and not had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy new friendships!

 

January 15, 2014 Guatemala City, Guatemala

Wednesday

Ya-a-a-y!!! Central America! So much to discover!

Glimpsing Guatemala
Glimpsing Guatemala

We arrived yesterday and don’t plan on spending much time in Guat City as it’s like #12 on the list of “Most Dangerous Cities in the World.” God willing, as long as we stay in the touristy areas, guard our belongs and are aware of our surroundings, it’ll be fine. A young woman researcher living outside Guat City says to stay off our smartphones in public – phone snatchers are watching. Even her locally purchased phone was stolen.

*Tip: If getting quetzales at the airport – walk out the airport door, cross the drive to the parking lot side and take the elevator on the right, up to the third floor location of Banrural. Kiosks inside the airport exchange rate – 6.51. Banrural exchange rate – 7.78!

A taxi picks us up to go to the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) in the Parque Central. I pull out my camera and start snapping away. The driver glances over his shoulder and quickly tells me to put it down! (Later, I find out that thieves on motorbikes have been known to drive up to a vehicle, point a gun and grab purses and other valuables before making a speedy escape.)

Palacio Nacional de la Cultura
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura

I have to say that when we arrive at the palacio, there are no English speaking guides. We’re told there ARE no English speaking guides. Reading Tripadvisor, many mention English speaking guides. Oh well, I like researching interesting places …

A grand salon for important meetings
A grand salon for important meetings

The palace was once known as the most important building in Guatemala as it’s the point from which ALL the roads in the republic originated – amazing! It looks to be centuries old, but was completed in 1943 when Presidente Jorge Ubico was in power. Forced prison labor toiled many years to build the residence. The bricks are green(-ish), Ubico’s wife’s favorite color.

Visitors gather 'round the guide as she points out the fresh rose on the bronze hands of the Monument of Peace, commemorating the end of Guatemala's 36-year civil war.
Visitors gather ’round the guide as she points out the fresh rose on the bronze hands of the Monument of Peace, commemorating the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

From what I’ve read, this presidente was a totally self-absorbed despot.  He had a thing about the number “5.” Wonder if it started when he noticed his first and last names have five letters each. The building has five main pillars, five fountains, arches in fives, there are five stories, etc.

Ubico's thumbprint atop the door handle
Ubico’s thumbprint atop the door handle

He even had his fingerprint imprinted onto all 500 door handles in the building. Thankfully, in time, he was removed. He later died in exile in New Orleans.

Bullet casings railing by one of many larger-than-life murals throughout the palace
Bullet casings railing by one of many larger-than-life murals throughout the palace

There are many detailed murals depicting various stages of Guatemala’s history. Can it be true that the stair rails are made of spent bullet casings?!?

 

Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago
Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago

We walk across the plaza to Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago (First Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago).  Building started in the late 1700s, with full completion 86 years later. (I apologize for the poor quality of this photo. I couldn’t get a clear shot in the bright sunshine.)

The catedral's vaulted ceiling
The catedral’s vaulted ceiling

 

 

 

The Metropolitana is not just another cathedral. It holds immense meaning for Guatemalans.

 

 

 

Penance
Penance

 

 

It has survived three major earthquakes within two centuries and weathered countless events, including a bloody prolonged war, coups, and a revolution.

 

 

 

Lighting candles
Lighting candles

A man leans over to admire the alfombra, a sawdust rug
A man leans over to admire the alfombra, a sawdust rug

 

 

It houses the country’s oldest icon and its very first pipe organ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catedral Candles

 

 

The twelve pillars in front are etched with thousands of names, a heartrending tribute to those who disappeared or were murdered during Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war. It is still recovering and will take decades to do so.

SooSoo is Seeing Central America!

Sorry for the long lapse in posts. We were thankful one of the kids came in for Thanksgiving. Then, blessed when all three came home for Christmas!

The new year brought new experiences. We have been in Guatemala since January. Today, we leave for Nicaragua. Since we didn’t bring the laptop, it’s difficult to load photos and video. I’ll post more when we come back in late March.

Soo

p.s.: I’ve been tweeting travel photos from @SooSooSees!

Magic Day 5: Belize City, Belize

Thursday,  November 7, 2013

"Sorry, what can I do?"
“Sorry, what can I do?”

We’re told to not venture outside of the tourist areas, so Lonnie & I sign up at Belize Caribbean Tours to visit the ruins. We hope that a small group with a guide will be a nice experience. It was a mistake … a BIG mistake. They herd four of us around for almost an hour, to three different “waiting areas” as they try to get more people to fill up the van. There are about a dozen of us who finally leave. But not before the agent gets an earful, even after he offers to add another stop along the route (that would squeeze the schedule’s timeline). If there’s a long wait time, passengers should be told. They probably didn’t want to lose customers, but it’s still a poor policy. We know better now that unless you already have a group going, DON”T sign up for a van!!!

Mayan ruins
Mayan ruins

Imagine their lives ...
Imagine their lives …

To be fair, our guide, Richard, is quite good. With 16 years as a guide under his belt, he’s a constant stream of Belize history. He says to ask him anything, even about his family. (We now know how much it costs for his child to go to school and what color her uniform is.  We also go by the school she attends.) There’s a short tour of the city, then countryside, before taking an hour long trip to the ruins. Okay, it’s fun speeding past the huge, lumbering cruise buses that sway along the horribly pockmarked excuse of a road. Thinking positively, our oft times jarring ride can also be seen as an invigorating seat massage. An advantage of a small group is that we can listen up close to the commentary – we definitely would not be able to hear as well in a large group walking the ruins. 

If you plan to visit for a while, this is some of what Richard shared with the van as we went hurtling along. Belize’s top four industries are agriculture, aquaculture, tourism and oil. There is no local paper, but they have electricity and lots of cable shows to keep them connected with the world. Water is 1/2 a U.S. cent per gallon. Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America. Thirteen years ago cruise ships began docking in Belize and Americans came, buying property and building homes here. Every citizen in Belize who turns 18 is gifted property from the government – in the city, a small property, in the country, up to 10 acres. A 2000 sq. ft. home in a decent neighborhood in the city runs about $250 for property tax. If you have someone working for you (maid, gardener), you have to pay income tax, about 7%.

June to November is the rainy season. We come at a good time. Last week everything was flooded and all tours were canceled! The last big hurricane here was in 1961. The crime rate is very low, 89 homicides/murders so far this year for the whole country. Richard talks about concrete homes, delicious fruit, the population, and much more! 

Happy image compliments of the house photography team:

A magical Elegant Night
A magical Elegant Night

Dining room dancing! Add another performance from Marlon, the Singing Waiter:

Magic Day 4: Roatan Bay Island, Honduras

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Oh, happy day – LAND!!! Large tourist parks like Gumbalimba are wonderful, with all their ziplines, lush nature paths and organized outdoor activities. They’re lots of fun and everything is clean and well-maintained.

Wares hanging at a Coxen Hole shop

We’re not going that route. We hope to experience the real island while putting money directly into the local economy so, we head to the queue of taxis. Even though there is access to electricity, running water and (even) cable TV on the island of Roatan, Honduras is considered to be one of the poorest of Central American countries. (If you visit, don’t forget the bug spray as sand fleas are ferocious! One flea bite that got through the spray stayed red many days after.) The manager of the taxi company asks drivers, one-by-one, if they speak enough English to be our guide. Finally, he turns to us and says it’s our lucky day. HE’s going to take us around the island! So, off we go with our new friend, Rubin.

Welcome!
Welcome!

A local sanctuary called Mayan Eden is just off the main road. It’s not pretty, but in a very natural state. It’s small, somewhat rundown, but there’s a lovely dock further down the path.

Iguanas are lazing about – munching on leaves, sunning on the ground, on the roof of a shelter, in the trees. We feed a few, but politely decline an offer to hold one.

Knock, knock. Who's there? Iguana. Iguana who? 'ey, gwanna climb up this tree and feed me?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Iguana.
Iguana who?
‘ey, gwanna climb up this tree and feed me?

There is a small enclosed butterfly farm on the property, but it rained earlier and we don’t see many. The flowers are fresh and shiny from the recent soaking.

Wish Leaf blossoms
Wish Leaf blossoms

IMG_1814

Color coordinated
Color coordinated

We wander down to the dock, where a young man points out an octopus that’s changing color, right before our eyes! Sorry for the watery image. I tried to sharpen it as much as possible.

Can you see the octopus?
Can you see the octopus?

Our guide points out a local favorite, the Monkey Lala lizard. I take a quick shot, as they move fast! Remember the National Geographic commercial, where a lizard skims effortlessly over the water in a standing position? That’s the striped basilisk lizard, also known as the Jesus lizard or Monkey Lala. It has special feet and a crazy running technique that keeps it from sinking as it races across the water. There’s more about it at natgeojesuslizard.

Monkey Lala, Jesus lizard, Striped Basilisk lizard - pick a name, any name!
Monkey Lala, Jesus lizard, Striped Basilisk lizard – pick a name, any name!

Monkeys are more our style. One, a black spider monkey named Hannah, leaves muddy tracks as she runs up my leg and jumps into my arms. The guide says she prefers women. She curls up, snug as a baby. When we leave, they pry her out of my arms. “Bye, Hannah.”

Sweet Hannah
Sweet Hannah

It's food I want, not a picture!
It’s food I want, not a picture!

Wanna hold 'im? No thanks, Mauricio.
Wanna hold ‘im?
No thanks, Mauricio.

Making friends
Making friends

This restroom could have been a painting!
This restroom could have been a painting!

Rubin takes us to his favorite view of the island after stopping by the roadside to get a bag of his son’s favorite snack. It’s a hairy looking ball with yellow tinged spikes. He insists we try some. Mmm … tastes just like a plump Chinese lychee!

Juicy!
Juicy!

Rubin's favorite spot, overlooking the island
Rubin’s favorite spot, overlooking the island

Lunch at one of Rubin’s local hangouts, Bayside Restaurant & Grill. The restaurant is in the grittier part of Coxen Hole, but it gives the restaurant atmosphere.

Blissful breezes
Blissful breezes

Mine, all mine!
Mine, all mine!

A hummingbird is perfectly framed as it perches behind us
A hummingbird is perfectly framed as it perches behind us

Rubin drops us off and we take a short stroll through Mahogany Beach. There are lifts to take tourists over, food and drink, row-on-rows of beach chairs and outdoor games.

Sand & Sun
Sand & Sun

It's getting late, time to go ...
It’s getting late, time to go …

On board, we clean up for a very special show. A Las Vegas magician is brought in to dazzle us with flashy moves and cool illusions. Again, “No pictures, please.”

Preparing to be entertained
Preparing to be entertained

Even crew members dress up for the event!
Even crew members dress up for the event!

We sit next to Jeremy, a crew member who wears many hats, as they often do. The former architect from Australia is an example of the scope of professions from which cruise staff migrate. He followed his passion and now travels the world!

Magic Day 3: 89 Carnival Cruises and Counting …

Tuesday,  November 5, 2013

Sorry Lonnie, Tre's thick beard puts your little Billy Goat Gruff puff to shame!
Sorry Lonnie, Tre’s thick beard puts your little Billy Goat Gruff puff to shame!

We had a three hour brunch. (Cue “Gilligan’s Island” music.) Yes … a thr-e-e-e ho-o-o-ur brunch. We ran into old friends and caught up on our lives, thoroughly! Janie and Lonnie used to work at the same company before Janie left and it took a fast and furious death dive from which there was no recovery. You could say that was the beginning of Sarbanes-Oxley.

This trip is not the first time we’ve unintentionally found each other. About 15 years ago, we ran into Janie & Tre on a busy street in Canada! They are a lovely couple and we have plenty of laughs over old times.

Competitors vie enthusiastically for the middle slot in the marriage contest
Competitors vie enthusiastically for the middle slot in the marriage contest

One of the more entertaining shows we attend is on marriage. A couple married 53 years are so cute! They sit on stage with two other couples, chair backs together, writing separate answers to questions from 6’3.” The husband is a frisky one. The wife will occasionally reach back and try to whack his leg with her cane if she thinks he’s misbehaving!

One of the best interactive activities we enjoy is karaoke in one of the lounges. The dance moves of two men add a real “Motown Sound” to the song. You can see the older gentleman cue his protege, as if he’s a former Pip!

Carnival dancers and students dip and sway to the music
Carnival dancers and students dip and sway to the music

Carnival dancers lead a class on ballroom dancing before there’s a dance-off. Their graceful moves and high energy when performing rivals any such acts you see in Vegas!

I have to give a “BIG, BIG THANK YOU!!!” to the crew. They play a huge part in our cruise experience. They work long hours, seven days a week, for six to nine months straight, to ensure that passengers are well cared for and safe! I read name tags from Croatia, the Philippines, Turkey, Indonesia, Serbia, etc. Our dinner waiters also work the breakfast shift.  We learn that one of our servers, Marlon, has another talent when he breaks into song during dinner!

Walking around, we bump into Susan Drew Brock, a well-traveled passenger. During one of the activities, 6’3″ pointed out Susan as a very special guest. I sit down with Ms. Brock for a little chat:

Earlier this year, Susan cruised to South America on the Splendor. She remembers its maiden voyage, when she flew into England and boarded it to visit Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany. Two years ago this week, Brock flew to Spain for the Magic’s maiden voyage, an ocean crossing!

Susan is not just a spectator. She’s judged events such as the Hairiest Chest Contest. Cruise directors call out her name when they need a volunteer to break the ice and start the ball rolling. The former cheerleader was actually quite shy growing up. Since then, she has sung the national anthem many times for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo and the Texas Rangers. “Our nation is very blessed! Thank God we’re here in America, where we can sing the national anthem and say the pledge of allegiance.” Susan still teaches and says a group of students are from the Congo. They lived in a crowded, dangerous camp for several years and saw their father decapitated by a machete. She’s determined to see that they have a better life in America.

The former nurse, singer, Miss Kodak, actress and Miss Pibb still sings. She’s related to the Barrymores. Drew is the family name that started the well-respected acting dynasty.

When asked, “Are you rich?” by a passenger, Susan replied that she was rich in family, good health and friends. The tablemate persisted, pointed out her many travels. Well, here is how Susan does it:

* You have to pay yourself

* Set clear goals

* Live simply. She does her own hair and nails. She mows her own yard.

* When it comes to spending, shop around. Don’t take the first thing you see.

* When traveling, don’t pack the kitchen sink.

* Think ahead.

* Take tours when visiting other countries, as you may never come back; meet locals;     try local foods; learn about their cultures

Susan thinks cruises are the best way to travel – park your car, unpack, make new friends and sample all the varieties of food you want!

With a sparkling smile, she imparts one last piece of advice – “Have fun. Enjoy life!”

Magic Day 2: Meet the Carnival Magic Cruise Director!

Monday,  November 4, 2013

Today, I caught up with the Cruise Director, nicknamed 6’3″. It’s a long ways to look up, even when she’s wearing flats! The former model sat down for a short interview before heading out to host the next activity.

Lots to see and do – food, fun and favors!

The Executive Chef made enough for everyone to taste!
The Executive Chef made enough for everyone to taste!

Romantic sunsets ...
Romantic sunsets …

Fav meal - vegetarian Indian dishes!
Fav meal – vegetarian Indian dishes!

Didn't win Air Guitar Contest, but had fun tryin'!
Didn’t win Air Guitar Contest, but had fun tryin’!

Videos & board games are in the library
Videos & board games are in the library

High tea!
High tea!

Meet the Captain!
Meet the Captain!

Magic Day 1: Bon Voyage!

Sunday,  November 3, 2013

Takin' to the high seas!
Takin’ to the high seas!

 

Three days after booking a cruise, we’re here! (Great last minute deals can often be found.) Galveston is a short drive down the freeway and the Carnival Magic is calling! 

 

Anywhere near water makes me happy! There are about 4,000 other guests, but it doesn’t feel crowded at all. We pull a cold bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple-Pomegranate juice from the bag and toast our voyage.  The whole ship is feeling the magic of Carnival!

What next?

Thursday,  October 28, 2013

Back in town, we check our mail. A letter arrives from RacTrac. There was an issue with one of our gas fill-ups at a RacTrac while on the trip. It was possible the hose bumped into the fuel pump and caused the mistake, but the rep went ahead and sent us a gift card with the difference. A check arrived and I have to say that RacTrac knows how to maintain a good rapport with customers!

We’re staying with a relative in the Houston area as we look for a short-term apartment or extended stay lease. (We plan on traveling early next year.) Looked at house sitting sites, but there are more people looking to house sit than looking for sitters. We’ve visited over twenty different properties and find a few that fit our schedule. As we narrow down the list, I glance over at my husband. He looks back. “I don’t want to stop traveling.”

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