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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!

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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!”

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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

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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.

 

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“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!”

 

 

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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.

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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!

 

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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!

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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.

 

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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

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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!

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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.

 

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Been on a Break

We’ve been unavailable the past week and are now back on land and re-connected. Should be posting more soon!

Here’s what @SocialMediaMo tweeted not long ago:

“Blessed are they who can laugh at themselves for they shall never cease to be amused.”

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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.

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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!

 

 

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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

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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!

 

 

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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.

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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

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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!

 

 

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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!
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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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

 

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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

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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!

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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:

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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!

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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!”

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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!
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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!

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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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Day 51: Little Rock

Thursday,  October 24, 2013

Arkansas State Capitol rotunda chandelier is enormous and takes a half hour just to lower it
Arkansas State Capitol rotunda chandelier is enormous and takes a half hour just to lower it

 

 

We go by the state capitol. The rotunda is being renovated and we’re able to get an up-close view of the massive electric chandelier that usually hangs as a focal point in the rotunda. Made around 1914, it weighs over 4000 pounds.

Fists full of dollars
Fists full of dollars

 

 

 

 

We visit the state treasurer’s office to hold $140,000 in bills. We also receive special coins as a memento of our visit.

Memorial to the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the the Arkansas State Capitol
Memorial to the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the the Arkansas State Capitol

 

 

 

Outside, we walk around the memorial to the Little Rock Nine. They bravely stepped through the doors of Central High School in 1957. The Arkansas governor had tried to prevent the school integration, but President Eisenhower intervened and the students were admitted. 

Mason sits and wonders why people toil under the hot sun for many hours
Mason sits and wonders why people toil under the hot sun for many hours

That GPS did it again!!! It sent us down a narrow dirt road that deadends. We get the correct directions from a local business and go two miles down to the Crater of Diamonds State Park. A couple we met in West Palm Beach were the ones to tell us to check it out if we go through Arkansas. It doesn’t look like a crater to me, but it is – a long ago volcanic crater. It’s the ONLY diamond producing site in the world where the public can search for diamonds and keep their finds. Basically, it’s a big field (37 1/2 acres) divided by a raised dirt path and marked by sections. People are scattered about, carrying their tools – buckets, sieves, shovels, knee pads.

Look at my pretty rock!
Look at my pretty rock!

I use the recommended technique. Walk along and just keep your eyes open. Just two days ago, a teenager from Oklahoma found a 3.85 carat yellow diamond just sitting atop the dirt! She named it “God’s Jewel.” That makes it about 400 diamonds found here this year. (The largest diamond ever discovered the the United States was also unearthed here. It, “The Uncle Sam”, was a whopping 40.23 carats!) Lonnie stays up at the center. He thinks that’s a low yield and not worth his time. I tell him that if God wants me to have a diamond, I’ll find a diamond. Well, God didn’t want me to have a diamond. That’s fine, I have everything I need and even a memento of my diamond search.

We get into Dallas and go through two construction jams on the highways before arriving in Fort Worth. We’ll be staying with relatives tonight before heading home!

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Day 50: Memphis

Wednesday,  October 23, 2013

Central BBQ gave us delicious food with a dollop of southern hospitality!
Central BBQ gave us delicious food with a dollop of southern hospitality!

We make it to Memphis, Tennessee in time for lunch. The search for a good barbeque place pops up Central BBQ, 2249 Central Avenue. It’s pork has been voted #1 over and over. It’s the typical barbeque place. We can’t decide on sides. The sweet young woman taking orders at the cash register passes us a basket of handmade potato chips with a small dish of chunky blue cheese dressing and says it’s on the house, try it. If we like it we can order it next time. Now, doesn’t that just ring of true southern hospitality?!? We split a three meat platter and roll out happy!

Mysterious motorcade
Mysterious motorcade

Leaving town, we pass what could be six motorcycle cops and a line of black SUVs waiting at the beginning of the bridge. We cross over the bridge into Arkansas and suddenly see a l-o-n-g line of black jacketed motorcyclists with lights on, cruising toward Memphis. At the end of the procession, an ambulance with lights on flies by. If anyone knows what happened at 2:35p today, please fill me in!

West Memphis, Arkansas visitors center is a great place for a break
West Memphis, Arkansas visitors center is a great place for a break

We stop by the West Memphis, Arkansas visitors center. It has some of the cleanest restrooms and the nicest staff!

West Memphis, Arkansas visitors center staff is efficient and friendly!
West Memphis, Arkansas visitors center staff is efficient and friendly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrive in Little Rock with plenty of time for a good night’s rest. For dinner, we walk through a Chinese grocery store to get to Mr. Chen’s restaurant. How interesting. That gives it character and the security guard for the store makes me feel protected!

The Gai lan, beef with noodles was good.
The Gai lan, beef with noodles was good.

 

Mr. Chen's restaurant's appearance was a pleasant surprise
Mr. Chen’s restaurant’s appearance was a pleasant surprise

 

Fried Soft Shell Crabs must have been fried in old oil. Not a good flavor.
Fried Soft Shell Crabs must have been fried in old oil. Not a good flavor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 49: Pigeon Forge, Nashville

Tuesday,  October 22, 2013

We did see a gaggle of geese in a nearby river
We did see a gaggle of geese in a nearby river

The Old Mill area in Pigeon Forge is part of one long stretch of touristy amusements, shopping centers, restaurants and hotels. Reminds us of Las Vegas. Drove by the Dixie Stampede, but did that in Branson. Didn’t feel like going to Dollywood, though my husband did talk about it being one of the amusements to see when we got here. Well, after wandering through shops and eating at one of the restaurants, we’re done.

Bigger-than-life at the Hollywood Wax Museum!
Bigger-than-life at the Hollywood Wax Museum!

We drive a bit into the Smokey Mountains, but decide we’ll check it out another time as we have driven through and hiked up a few national parks on this trip already. We do stop and take a photo of the Hollywood Wax Museum entertaintment center. That, the Castle of Chaos and MagiQuest are s-o-o-o Las Vegas!

America Adventure teams are serious about winning, but have fun too!
America Adventure teams are serious about winning, but have fun too!

 

 

On the way to Nashville, a roadster passes us. It’s one of the teams competing in the annual America Adventure! This year, it’s from Nashville to Savannah, a kind of scavenger hunt-road rally. Sportscars to sedans to rental cars race like mad in the three-day rally.

A nicely renovated  La Quinta
A nicely renovated
La Quinta

 

Praise God! Due to the time change,

we gain an hour and get into Lebanon, just outside Nashville, when it’s daylight! This La Quinta just underwent six months of renovations and is nicely updated. Everything looks clean and fresh. Water and a snack are waiting for us and the bed has added softness with a pillowtop cover.

Bangkok Pad Thai's food is way hotter than it innocently looks!
Bangkok Pad Thai’s food is way hotter than it innocently looks!

 

As with most of our stops, we don’t have a set schedule and often book a room the same day. Well, today is not our day for entertainment. The Grand Ole Opry is standing room only for a special “Pink” performance by country stars Amy Grant, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, LeAnn Rimes, etc. We check out mystery theatres/dinners and none are open during the week. So, we go to Bangkok Pad Thai for a #2 level that blows serious heat and reminds me what a wimp I am!

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Day 48: Mount Airy

Monday,  October 21, 2013

Today is Mayberry Monday! We have the complimentary breakfast and chow down on sausage patties, biscuits & eggs, cereal and yogurt. During checkout, I tell the front desk how really pleased we were with the room. It was previously part of another hotel chain, then fully renovated and is now only two weeks old as a Comfort Inn.

Andy & Opie will be forever endearing to many!
Andy & Opie will be forever endearing to many!

Walking around Mont Airy, North Carolina, AKA Mayberry, is a very positive experience. The locals are ALL so sweet to us. A woman out for exercise greets us as she strides by. We need a little help with directions, and walk into a local bank. The lady is happy to help us. She has a charming drawl as she gives directions to our next stop.

A moment with Barney and Andy
A moment with Barney and Andy

Standing in the long line for Snappy Lunch cafe, I see someone getting a haircut in the barber shop next door. Lonnie’s holding our place in line, so I walk on over. A man with an oxygen tank sitting by the door asks me, “Where’s your horse?” At first I’m a little taken aback. Then, “Oh!” I’m wearing my western-style straw hat. I say that I don’t have one but that I AM from Texas. He asks if I can sing “San Antone Rose” (made famous by Bob Wills). I say I can sing “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You” and sing the first stanza, to which I add a rousing, “GO LONGHORNS!!!” People in the barber shop get a kick out of that as I walk over to the barber chair. I ask for permission to take a photo and they agree.

Jokes and laughter abound at Floyd's Barber Shop when visiting 89 year-old barber, Russell Hiatt!
Jokes and laughter abound at Floyd’s Barber Shop when visiting 89 year-old barber, Russell Hiatt!

 

Then, the barber, Russell Hiatt, starts telling me a joke about a cop, a driver, a bottle of alcohol and Jesus’ first miracle. Russell is said to be the inspiration for Floyd, the barber, on The Andy Griffith Show. He even changed the shop name to Floyd’s!

Snappy Lunches, since 1923!
Snappy Lunches, since 1923!

 

A meal at Snappy Lunch is rather uncomplicated. Sandwiches arrive wrapped in paper, the chips in a bag. My thin grilled cheese sandwich tastes like the sliced processed cheese that comes 20 to a pack at the store. Lonnie has the world famous pork chop sandwich: 1 fried pork chop, coleslaw, chili, mustard, onion and tomato and an iced tea. I know Yelpers and all just LOVE this sandwich, but it’s a like for us, though the coleslaw is really good. One thing that can’t be beat, though, is the total price of $7.06!

 

Our tickets to the Andy Griffith Museum also get us into the Siamese Twins exhibit and The Old Time Music Heitage Hall at Earle Theatre.

A highlight is the squad car ride. The “deputy” takes us around town, pointing out areas of interest – Andy’s childhood home, school, church and Wally’s Gas Station, etc. It was an interesting 30 minute tour, and you could tell the deputy loved presenting his dramatic interpretations. Lonnie asked about Andy’s first wife. (We’d speculated about that earlier in the day after visiting Andy’s museum. There wasn’t much mention of her after the early years.)

Breathe in the mouthwatering aromas of Miss Angel's Heavenly Pies!
Breathe in the mouthwatering aromas of Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies!

We step into Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies and take a moment for a big whiff of deliciousness! Here is the rich, full-bodied smell of real baking, not the overly sweet smell of pure sugar. Lonnie has a baked turnover, I have a slice of (I think) cinnamon sour cream cake. Then, for a late night treat when we get to Pigeon Forge, we add a huge piece of luscious, creamy German chocolate cake!

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Day 47: Painesville, West Virginia, Mount Airy

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Yes, America IS beautiful!
Yes, America IS beautiful!

It’s our first breakfast in a Waffle House on the trip. Not my fav, but Lonnie wants a cooked-to-order breakfast before hitting the road. Yaay! We’re going to “Mayberry!” Well, Mount Airy, North Carolina – Andy Griffith’s real life hometown. On the way, we stop at the West Virginia visitors center off of I-77. The front desk tells us we missed the New River Gorge Bridge Walk, West Virginia’s largest festival, by a day. It’s the third Saturday in October each year and everyone is invited to walk on top of the New River Gorge Bridge. There are arts & crafts, food, BASE jumpers, rappellers and gorgeous Fall views.  They also offer daily guided tours of the the long catwalk below the bridge that looks straight down 876′ to the New River.  

Visitors center staffer, Bonnie, shares her vision of the perfect West Virginia day!
Visitors center staffer, Bonnie, shares her vision of the perfect West Virginia day!

One of the center staffers, Bonnie, is touching up her autumn chalk drawing. She was an art therapist for 25 years and has been delighting visitors to the center with lovely scenes like this. When it comes time to change the chalkboard, Bonnie takes a photo of her seasonal art before erasing it to create another engaging scene for all to enjoy.

We back up in reverse on this narrow bridge when time runs out
We back up in reverse on this narrow bridge when time runs out

We are persuaded to take a detour to see a couple of area falls.  We get to Highway 19 and agree that the twisting hairpin turns are eating into the time allowed to get to the Gorge before sunset. The large waterfall requires a 3/4 turn onto a wooden bridge and down a steep, narrow dirt trail. This detour is taking too much time,

so we back up in reverse on the country bridge and then head out to the main road.

Kanawha Falls
Kanawha Falls

There is a brief stop at Kanawha Falls before we arrive at New River Gorge lookout as the sun descends.

New River Gorge lookout
New River Gorge lookout

The lookout is said to be a 600′ descent into the Gorge.

New River Gorge
New River Gorge
Obstructed view of the bridge. It IS a nice tree, though!
Obstructed view of the bridge. It IS a nice tree, though!
We're SO glad to see Comfort Inn!
We’re SO glad to see Comfort Inn!

Leaving the gorge so late is a problem as night falls and Lonnie has to negotiate curving mountainous roads in complete darkness, with the occasional headlights of another lonely vehicle. We FINALLY arrive in Mount Airy and the Comfort Inn looks s-o-o-o good! It welcomes us with fluffy pillows and plenty of space to lay our things.

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Day 45: Toronto

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tasty Ramen Noodles with Satay Chicken Wings soup!
Tasty Ramen Noodles with Satay Chicken Wings soup!

 

 

We don’t usually eat at a place more than once, but we enjoyed yesterday’s breakfast so much that we go again. I fancy a richly flavored soup and cup of sweet Hong Kong tea.

On the way to Niagara Falls
On the way to Niagara Falls

 

 

Now we’re ready for Niagara Falls! It has been raining, but the sun breaks out as we arrive.

We don super thin yellow plastic ponchos before going down the elevator.

View from the Canadian side
View from the Canadian side
Perpetual rainbow
Perpetual rainbow

 

 

There are plaques with historical facts along the tunnel to the second level lookout – oh yeah, look out for heavy mist coating the camera lens!

Along the Wine Country trail
Along the Wine Country trail

 

 

Once we have our fill, it’s on to the wine country trail. Lots of winding country roads. We get to a small town overrun by tour buses and shuttles. People pack the sidewalks, going in and out of cute little shops. It’s Bar Harbor all over again and no place to park. We don’t stop. Another day, Niagara-on-the-Lake!

Woo! Hoo!
Woo! Hoo!

Heading back, our son wonders if diesel truck drivers still pull the stack cord if you motion pulling it. We slowly pull even with an 18 wheeler with a shiny diesel stack. Our son waits to catch the driver’s eye, then pumps his fist up and down. The white mustached driver looks a little startled, then reaches up and gives the horizontal cord a quick pull. We cheer loudly and clap!!! It still works for a 20-something. Thank you, Grant Haulage, for such accommodating drivers!

A sweet break
A sweet break

Back in the city, Lonnie & I have our first visit to Tim Hortons. There are now Tim Hortons in the states, but we want to try it in Canada. I bite into a chocolate glazed donut. Hmm … it’s okay. I prefer a Shipley’s donut. I like to think that it was Shipley’s that ran Crispy Creme out of Houston. I probably prefer Shipley’s due to the fact that our dad would come home from an occasional all night mah jong game after the restaurant closed. If he did well, we might get a bit of his lucky money. Other times, he would bring home a white box of freshly glazed Shipley’s donuts and wake us up. It’s hard to beat a melt-in-your-mouth, still-warm Shipley’s!

Beet salad
Beet salad
Award-winning poutine
Award-winning poutine
French Onion Soup
French Onion Soup

 

For dinner, we go to Coquine, a restaurant recommended by a friend. My beet salad is very good. Lonnie’s $28 cod is not a generous serving, as our server claimed.

 

 

 

Our son enjoys his the most. He ordered French Onion Soup and … you guessed it, poutine!

 

 

 

 

 

Both have been voted Best of Toronto two years in a row. The poutine is especially tasty. The gravy includes a duck comfit and is rich and savory.

 

 

 

Back at the hotel, our son catches up on his social media while we go downstairs for dessert. The crème brulee is the best I’ve ever eaten! It’s creamy, rich with flavor and most importantly for me, not too sweet. If something is too sweet, you can miss the dish’s true flavor. Ah, the perfect end to a full day!

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Day 44: Toronto

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Marathon Cafe

 

Marathon Cafe is a typical no-frills place, but they have an award-winning milk tea and decent food. They offer western-style breakfasts with bacon, eggs & toast. They also offer Chinese noodle soups and dishes.

 

Rainy Toronto
Rainy Toronto

We do a lot of window shopping at Eaton Centre before going to their huge food court. It must have over 50 options! We go in three different directions and meet over Chinese, American and Indian dishes. Bellies full, time to drive by Casa Loma, the local castle. It’s taken over by multi-story scaffolding. Cross that out for another trip. It’s raining. Cross out the CN tower.

Nicely wrapped vegetables are so different from those in most U.S. Chinatowns
Nicely wrapped vegetables are so different from those in most U.S. Chinatowns
Roast pig with slivers of pickled vegetables
Roast pig with slivers of pickled vegetables
Thought we had ordered the Mayonnaise Shrimp ...
Thought we had ordered the Mayonnaise Shrimp …

 

 

 

To the biggest of the five Toronto Chinatowns, the one downtown. Canadian Chinatowns are the cleanest!

 

 

 

 

Then, to the House of Gourmet Seafood BBQ and Noodle Restaurant. It’s packed with Asians, a good sign.

 

 

 

 

Again, we order in English, are misunderstood and get a different dish than expected. Still, the food is flavorful.

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Day 43: Montreal, Toronto

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Yesterday, a lovely Dutch woman g