Mary Clark, Traveler

Sleeping With a Hippo in My Bed

Hippo snacking below our tents at Mana Pool, Zimbabwe

In the spring and fall in Paris, I like to sleep with windows open, with an occasional owl’s hoot accompanying my dreams.  Only dogs barking interrupt the night’s peace.  Morning sounds expand with greetings from the local birds – cardinals, wrens, and robins.  Migrating birds announce their arrivals on schedule.  And cars and trucks from Loop 286 start their steady hums.  And, so, I was looking forward to hearing new night and morning sounds from inside our tents in Botswana and Zimbabwe on our photo safari.  What I hadn’t expected was the nocturnal hippo challenging my sleep.

We are all aware that a hippopotamus is described as a large thick-skinned semiaquatic African mammal, with massive jaws and large tusks.  I would put the emphasis on large, as it can reach two tons in weight and 5 ½ feet in height.  It rests in the morning, looks for food in the evening and night.  Its comparatively tiny ears stay out of the water as the hippo rests, never losing track of what menaces might be near. We learned to recognize the shape of the hippo heads that initially looked like black rocks protruding from the water.

What is missing from the dictionary description is the hippo’s easily identifiable sounds. The male honk is the loudest – deep with the lower decibels sometimes equaling 115 or the same as a rock concert or loud thunderstorm.   Other sounds contribute to a bass melody of grunts, growls, roars, wheezing and even what sounds like a deep laugh.  And underwater, a series of clicks communicates to other hippos through vibrations and are felt by their jawbones. From the night sounds, my perception of the hippos’ schedule included convivial happy hours of socializing through the night.

Raft of hippos on Zambezi River

At our first two bush camps in Botswana, the hippos as a group were relatively close.  But at the Zambezi Expedition Camp in Mana Pool National Park in Zimbabwe, our tent perched on the riverbank with a raft of hippos just below.  These plant loving animals scrounged for grass on land in the evening and night, returning to the water at some point before dawn.  After one late afternoon animal drive in the bush, we were stopped short of our camp by a couple of elephants and one hippo enjoying their herbivore snacks and slowly, very slowly, moving on to the water.  They passed within 10 feet of our tent.

Hippo on the move

In general, the hippos we observed were safely in the water or ignored our presence.  The exception happened to my brother and his wife on a guided late afternoon canoe ride in the Zambezi River that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Billed as a smooth, quiet ride in the water, it seemed a nice alternative to another game viewing drive on dusty, bumpy roads.  But on the way back, the canoes passed a little too close to a hippo who charged the canoe on land but stopped at the water.  Another (possibly mother)  hippo in the water felt threatened and began thrashing and swirling the water around her as she approached the canoes. The guide first held an oar above his head to appear bigger and then slapped the paddle flat on the water continuously as he shouted to “keep rowing.” It didn’t help to have just learned hippos were the most dangerous land animal in the world.  Gratefully, the boats returned safely and  all passengers looked tense but relieved.

The night in the African Bush is a busy time.  Many of the animals are nocturnal due to the heat of the days.  I learned to listen for elephant trumpets, lion roars, hyena laughs, and many, many hippo honks.  It felt as if we were sharing our bed with at least one from the chorus of hippos.  I delivered that line at the breakfast campfire and most laughed.  But our leader, who has been to Africa 50 times, admitted he loved the hippo sounds.  It meant he was in the wild and he found them comforting.

Back home in Texas, my night sounds now pale in comparison to the African Bush.  Our breakfast talk doesn’t compare what animals we had heard in the dark. We don’t look for footprints around the tent to determine what visitors we had in the night.  And no hippos join us in bed – a presence that I surprisingly now miss.

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Memorable Train Rides from Around the World

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, passenger trains in the U.S.  were numerous and popular.  One even transported my kindergarten class between my hometown of Plainview, Tx. to Lubbock, 45 miles away. But with the advent of good roads and increased income, cars dominated and train routes dwindled. In other countries though, trains continued to deliver passengers and were there to be explored.

In 1972 I became enchanted by rail travel and all of its varied experiences.  With three-month Eurail passes in hand, my friend and I visited 15 countries, occasionally sleeping overnight in route, eating lunches brought aboard, and often jumping on a train without stopping for tickets.  In Spain, having misunderstood its departure time, we had to run alongside a departing train, tossing our luggage in as we ran.  In what was then Yugoslavia, I watched in horror as my train disappeared from the station after a scheduled stop just as I returned from getting snacks to eat onboard.  I had no phone and no way to message my friend who had remained on the train.  Five minutes later the train returned on a different platform to my great relief.

Not all my train rides were comfortable. The train from La Paz, Bolivia to Argentina’s border town of Villazon was painfully overcrowded.  All seats were taken and yet we were still issued tickets and told to stand. During the day, the ride was bearable.  A couple offered me a small slice of their bench seat to perch upon. Cracked windows provided ventilation and the view of the Bolivian highlands was interesting enough.  But night fell, windows were shut in defense of the cold high-altitude air, and nothing could be seen outside because of glaring overhead lights. My rare claustrophobia kicked in that evening requiring multiple trips to stand outside the train car where it adjoined the next car.  It was one of the longest nights of my travels.  Today, that train is modern and offers executive and lounge class with chairs reclining 160 degrees.  But in 1974, it was the Bolivian indigenous crowd and us, passing the long trip in a crowded train car through the cold Andean plains.

I lived in Ecuador for 1 ½ years and had heard of a train ride that switch backed from the high altitude of Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil with beautiful views of snow-covered volcanos. We booked our tickets in advance but, again, upon arriving found the one-car train full.  Given the option of riding on top of the car with the luggage or standing, the four of us climbed up an outer ladder and settled in amongst the suitcases and bags. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and happened to be around Carnival when water balloons were traditionally thrown at others, including any on top of a train.  At one stop, we climbed down, bought balloons and water, filled them, and were ready for the next town.  As we approached the flat coastal area, the train approached an area of several tunnels.  We had been assured we could sit up in those tunnels, but I dove into the luggage every time.

Vietnam is not known for its train services but there was one from Hanoi to Lao Cai, landing us closest to SaPa, a mountainous town near the Chinese border used by the French for relief from the coastal heat.  Many indigenous tribes live outside Sa Pa and the three of us wanted to explore their lives and crafts.  The train left at night, and we had a sleeper cabin booked with two bunk beds on either side.  We claimed three beds and assuming the cabin was ours, locked the door.  In the middle of the night, loud knocking on our door awoke me but not the others.  I didn’t answer.  But then the conductor used his key to open the sliding door.  In walked a man in a suit who nodded to me, took off his shoes and climbed up into the available bed across from me.  After removing his tie and coat, he laid down and quickly went to sleep. I lay awake in my pajamas wondering how I was going to get dressed in the morning.  Fortunately, our unexpected cabin mate was up early, and after straightening his tie and a second nod to me, climbed down, put on his shoes, and was gone.  My traveling companions didn’t know he was up there until he was leaving.

Today, extensive train travel remains primarily outside the U.S., especially the high-speed ones in Europe and the Far East.  I still consider that mode of travel best for passenger interaction and seeing the country.  You just have to get to the station early.

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Funiculars – Funny Name – Fun Ride

View of Hong Kong as The Peak Funicular ascends

View of Hong Kong from The Peak Funicular through tinted glass

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word, “funicular.”  Inclined Railroad or an Incline are more widely used words for the steeply tilted contraption that lifts passengers quickly up to a much higher destination – a kind of mountain side elevator. The oldest funicular in the world continues to operate in Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, Austria, known as the Reisszug, and has been in operation since the early 1500s.  The original funiculars transported supplies through the fortress doors of castles.

Destinations in the United States have included the top of a mountain, a hotel, an Amusement Park, Caverns, and the top of Bunker Hill in Boston.  The latter was the first American inclined railroad, built in 1826 to transport granite for the construction of a monument to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Truthfully, funiculars always make me nervous.  Even though the inclines today are run by electricity, many still clank and jerk at the start. The ascending car is hooked up to a moving cable and counterweighted by the car descending.  They move in tandem.  It is similar to the San Francisco cable cars, but those cars are not permanently attached to the cable and can start and stop on their own,

Surprisingly, the U.S. was once awash in funiculars with Pittsburg, Pennsylvania having the most – 23.  It was a steep climb from the Monongahela River up Mt. Washington where housing was located.  The steep, 635- foot Monongahela Incline built in 1870 is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the U.S.

For those few funiculars remaining in the U.S., most have become tourist attractions leading to other tourist attractions.  Sadly, the Royal Gorge Incline Railway in Colorado was closed in 2013 because of fire.  Lookout Mountain in Tennessee still brings riders up to the remarkable view that Confederate Generals James Longstreet and Braxton Briggs had the over the Lookout Valley during the Civil War.

Funicular office in Quebec, Canada

View of base of Quebec’s funicular

Tower at top of Prague’s funicular

Abroad there are many in unexpected places.  Chile’s port city of Valparaiso once had 31.  Naples’ Funiculare Centrale has been operating since 1928 and is also heavily trafficked. In Prague, a short funicular takes the rider up to a park with an Eiffel Tower in the center – minus the cowboy hat. Quebec’s old town funicular ascends from the river level to town center, moving tourists from a street of souvenirs to a row of restaurants.  Walking down the mountain to Old Quebec was easy but I was happy to jump on the funicular to ascend back to city center.

Orvieto, Italy, brings its visitors up a 134-year-old funicular with views of the valley below.  Popes liked to retreat to this ancient city for a respite even before the funicular provided easy access. My friends, Plug and Toni Clem, claim the restaurant at the top of the Orvieto funicular provided one of the best meals of their traveling experiences.  We both agreed the church above worth the ascent.

As could be expected, Switzerland heavily uses this form of transportation.  According to Wikipedia, the country has 53 operating funiculars, including the world’s newest just opened in Stoos.  The inclined railway transports passengers over 2200 feet (almost a half mile) in four minutes.  Barrel shaped cars rotate enough to keep the inside floor level.  I don’t usually experience vertigo but in a video promoting the opening of the incline in 2017, I felt my stomach drop watching the mountain disappear directly below on the 110-degree gradient.  It’s worth a look.

My favorite funicular ride was in Hong Kong.  The Peak moves residents from the business district to the top of Victoria Peak.  It has been serving Hong Kong since 1880, originally segregating riders into three categories:

  • First Class: British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak
  • Second Class: British military and Hong Kong Police Force personnel
  • Third Class: Other people and animals

Beginning descent of Hong Kong Funicular

Hong Kong’s funicular cable car

It is heavily used by locals and tourists and has had up to two hour waits on weekends to ride to the top.  Recent repairs and additions will speed up the ride and help with the overload.  What I can confirm is the view going up was stunning, taking in the bottom half of Hong Kong Island directly below.  Skyscrapers gave way to ferries in the distance crossing Victoria Harbor to hotels lined up along the waterfront on Kowloon Peninsula.

Since so many funiculars have been abandoned, I think it important to ride those still available.  The views are always notable and the experience important to understand past transportation options.  I hear there’s one in Bergen, Norway – a fall destination.  I hope to check it out.

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First American Museum – Site of “Distant Thunder” debut

East facing Entrance to museum aligns with the sunrise of the March vernal and September of the autumnal equinox.

The First American Museum (FAM) https://famok.org/ in Oklahoma City was a long time coming. Since Oklahoma has more than 60 percent of all enrolled Native Americans in the U.S., OKC was the natural location for such an ambitious project.  Initially conceived in 1994 to fill a need to tell the stories of the 39 Native American tribes in Oklahoma, the legislature created the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority but without funding.  It took 27 years before the museum opened thanks to monies raised from private donors, the State, City of Oklahoma, and the Chickasaw Nation.  With appropriate fanfare, the museum opened in October 2021 to the delight of tribal members and impressing national architects, museum critics, and the general public.

Digital screen print illustration on copper by Cherokee artist, Joseph Erb.

The FAM is not centered around a collection of artifacts.  There is no dusty diorama of Indians in native garb hunting in the desert.  What has survived of the sad history of the original four tribes in Oklahoma and the removal of 35 tribes to Oklahoma from other parts of the United States along the Trail of Tears are the stories.  As noted by a museum curator, the museum is “Our place to tell our stories from our perspective.”

Stunning People’s Hall for gatherings

Beginning with an animated surround sound video of the creation stories,  histories of the tribes are gradually revealed in galleries filled with historical data and family tales. Genocide, forced removal, boarding schools, and the unusual allotment history of the Oklahoma tribes are sad parts of their history. The number of treaty betrayals by the U.S. Government is achingly presented along with the statesmen of the tribes.  Later galleries celebrate achievements in the art, science, military, and sports worlds.  An imagined ride on a bus takes you to a current day pow wow. And upstairs are artefacts from the Smithsonian in Washington that have been rescued from storage and brought to life.

Shawn Corbitt and mother, Lynn Taylor Corbitt, co-authors of Distant Thunder

All this is well worth the visit.  But we recently also experienced the world premiere of “Distant Thunder”, a musical penned by Native American mother/son duo, Lynn Taylor Corbitt and Shawn Corbitt, members of the Black Feet tribe.  Presented in a section of the enormous parade ground behind the museum building, it was buffered by one of the country’s largest earth mound, modeled after those built by southern tribes and aligned with the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. The musical tells the modern-day story of so many Native Americans who are torn between tribal traditional support and going “where the jobs are.”  Fractured relationships heal as the prodigal son returns to learn the truth of his past.

At a cast/audience talk after the show, members of the Native American cast talked of the musical bringing them closer to their roots and many used the experience to heal wounds from their own pasts.  Representing tribes from Oregon to NYC, the cast hoped the musical would become their West Side Story that had illuminated the Puerto Rican experience or Fiddler on the Roof and its Jewish journey.

Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the 100-year-old American Association of Indian Affairs was the MC for the talk. She noted that their organization is celebrating 100 years of advocating for the tribes to be self-determinate.  In the beginning, they had to deal with forced boarding schools and the forbidding of the use of native language.  Today, they continue to advocate for taking back artifacts on museum shelves and teaching tribes how to use their treaties.

Writer Shawn Corbitt, admits the story of “Distant Thunder” is his story. Much of the plot stems from a trip he and his mother took to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, when Shaun was 15.  He grew up on Long Island and was hungry for his Black Feet heritage.  He now returns for their annual ceremonies.  The Old Man in the play, Brent Florendo, is from Oregon and teaches Native American studies. Matoka Little Eagle, who played Grandma Jingle Dress, talked of her father being sent to a boarding school and running away every Thursday when the school staff would bleach their skin. She was taught to be a dancer even in the north where she was raised.

Tribal dancing on stage as a part of the musical “Distant Thunder”

Xander Chauncey, of Shawnee and Mapuche heritage played the veteran who suffered from PTSD but noted it was also his own personal story. Native Americans have served in the military at five times the rate per capita of any other group in the U.S.  The play touched on energy company pipe lines, gaming, economic development, and global warming. Tribal dancing and poignant songs contribute greatly to the show’s authenticity.   And the actors agreed that its dominant theme was forgiveness.

The First American Museum is well worth a visit to learn of the past and present tribal life.  Hopefully, “Distanct Thunder” will join the musical circuit and more can understand the modern day Native American experience.

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Barcelona’s Nou Stadium – Being Near Greatness

Barcelona’s Motto – More Than a Team

Most visitors to Barcelona, Spain are charmed by its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Catalonian food and access to the Mediterranean.  But for soccer lovers, there’s only one destination – the Barcelona Football (soccer) stadium known as Camp Nou or new stadium, a 65 year old venue that holds 100,000 fans. Surprisingly to Americans, it is Barcelona’s number one tourist destination.  Known by its slogan, “ Mes que un equipo “ (more than a team), the club is renowned for freedom of movement for its players on the field, a history of political involvement, and a fan base from around the world.

Approach to the Nou Stadium

Unlike most stadiums in the United States, Europeans build theirs in the heart of a community with little space for parking.  Fans arrive by subway or bus as did we.  There was no game during our visit, but I still wanted to take the tour, hoping to feel the energy that accompanies an important soccer game.  In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup and we grabbed tickets to two of the games.  I have never felt such intensity amongst fans as I did in those games.

For visitors, the entry to the Nou stadium is through a museum filled with mementos from the team’s unique history.  Begun by a German immigrant in 1899, the team took some years to gain momentum.  The Nou stadium is the third of three built, each holding more fans.  The team established itself as a regional hero in 1930s when it tried to play under the Catalan flag.  This area of Catalonia, Spain has long wanted to be self-governed and loved that “their” team stood up for them.

Barcelona FC is also rare in that it is not owned by a corporation but by its 144,000 members. To become a member, simply make an in-person appointment in Barcelona, bring an ID card and a bank account number.  The annual fee is $220.  In the past, Barcelona FC was amongst the few without corporate sponsors.  They allied themselves with UNICEF children’s charity and pledged a yearly donation.  But today, the team is besieged with corporate suitors.

The museum is filled with the team’s dominant history and the numbers are impressive even if I didn’t know what all the initials stood for, 26 La Liga titles, 5 UEFA Championships, 15 FIFA Cup World Cup trophies, and 31 Copa del Rey titles.  Most will agree that Lionel Messi’s presence from 2004-2021 as one of the world’s best soccer player contributed greatly to the team’s success in their glory years.

Consistent with their “more than a team” description, I was surprised at how extensive their youth program was and that they also sponsored women’s soccer, basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams.

Visitors are allowed to walk this close to the field.

It was remarkable how free a visitor was to explore much of the stadium on the self-guided tour.  We passed through the visitors’ locker room, almost primitive by today’s American standards, stopped at the press boxes to admire their view, and descended the stairs to the field.  Yes, to the field.  One couldn’t run out and play but we were at field level and could look up at the stands, imagining them full of frantic fans.  Little distance separated the teams and the seats.

Deteriorated Condition of the Stands

What shocked me was the deteriorating condition of the whole stadium.  The paint on the seats was faded, plants grew in the cracks of the concrete, the press box lacked the high technology one would expect for a world class team.  I read of structural concerns.  So, it wasn’t a surprise when I learned recently that the stadium is getting a major facelift.

Espai Barca is the name of the renovation effort, meaning in Catalan, Football  Club of Barcelona Space.  For $1.7 billion, the plans include state of the art technology and a retractable roof covered with 30,000 square meters of solar panels. And the energy generated from those solar panels will power a 360-degree screen which will be located around the inside of the stadium.

In carrying out their reputation as “more than a team”, the plans include new offices, green spaces, event spaces, an ice rink, a hotel and the ‘Palau Blaugrana’ – a pavilion area which will be used by the basketball team.

For a team that is already one billion dollars in the hole, this expansion has risks.  But it is also inevitable, and the team is making the move now.  Games will be played elsewhere until 2025 when they hope to have the stadium finished.

The tour ended, of course, in the enormous gift shop. Despite their price, I couldn’t resist the Barcelona soccer outfits for our grandsons.  With parents who also love soccer, they may be able to watch a game at the renovated stadium someday.  I hope so. It is a part of the Catalonian heritage that should  be experienced.

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Columbia River Gorge – a Site Still to be Savored

The Oregon Trail was one of the first video games to come out in the late 1970s, introduced to our family in the 1980s. In a rudimentary form, it followed the actual Oregon Trail and required a pioneer player to make life and death decisions as their wagon pushed across western America from St. Louis to Oregon. There were hazards along the way and it was the lucky player who arrived at the Columbia River Gorge.  I was the lucky one to visit on a beautiful December day with my Oregon friend.

Before Lewis & Clark showed up on their 1805 expedition to the Pacific Ocean, native Americans lived along the Columbia River which at the time was filled with strong winds and the wildest rapids of the explorers’ trip. Today, violent winds generated by warm dry air from eastern Oregon still collide with cooler air from the west, but the rapids have long been tamed by dams. A scenic four lane highway now follows the river, but one can still experience some of the sense of discovery that Lewis & Clark and the settlers must have felt.

From the western side, a small U. S. Historic Route 30 Highway follows high above the river and offers panoramic views of the rock gorge and of the numerous waterfalls that were noted by Lewis and Clark.  There are over 90 waterfalls on the Oregon side with some of the most spectacular ones just along the highway.  The longest is the 620-foot Multnomah at the road’s edge that sports a stone bridge halfway up the falls.  But my Oregon friend and I preferred Bridal Veil Falls that required a short hike in to view and had a smaller crowd.

The falls still empty into the Columbia River as they did over 200 years ago, but those waters are now controlled by numerous dams.  Thanks to a series of locks, the river is easily navigable for larger barges and even smaller personal boats.  Websites are available to explain to boat owners how to maneuver through the Bonneville locks.  A railroad used to traverse this route and an old tunnel has been cleaned out to illustrate the train’s past presence.

We took advantage of a 1926 Truss Cantilever bridge with a toll of $2 to take us over to the Washington side.  From there the southern canyon rock walls were clearly visible.  As we followed current railroad tracks, the height of the gorge diminished and suddenly, there in the distance stood the 11,000-foot-tall Mt. Hood – bathed in later afternoon light with its snow covering reflecting the colors.  Lewis & Clark had similar reactions the first time they saw that magnificent mountain from the river – a sharp intake of breath at its wonder.    We continued to get glimpses of the mountain as the day ended.

Another crossing of the river on a second $2 toll historic truss bridge narrowly built for horse drawn carriages and Model Ts took us to Hood River, Oregon, a small but lively outdoor sports destination for boaters, paragliders, hikers, and skiers.  It was quiet in December but still had beautiful B&Bs and gourmet restaurants open.  I could have stayed longer.

The next day, we took the highway south that curves around Mt. Hood.  Parts of this highway into the Portland area follow the old Barlow toll road, built by Sam Barlow and Philip Foster in 1846.  This road was an option in the Oregon Trail video game and in real life.  Since the Columbia River rapids were dangerous and there was often a long line of wagons waiting their turn on the river, Sam Barlow saw an opportunity for another safer route inland.  However, it was a toll road and in the video game, you may or may not have landed there with enough money to pay the toll, a true dilemma for early settlers.

The new highway works its way around the massive Mt. Hood, and we took the opportunity to visit another crown jewel of the Rockies – the Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 in Cascadian architecture.  With man-sized fireplace openings and wood carvings throughout, the hotel is worth the small detour from the highway.  Sadly, fog obscured the view of the ski area and valley below filled with its other snow-covered volcanoes.

As we returned to Portland, the highway followed or crossed the old Barlow Toll way until landing us in the beautiful and bountiful Willamette valley – the true destination of the Oregon Trail settlers.  Those who made it were fortunate.  In playing the video game as in true life, one would often lose a family member to dysentery or infection or drowning in a river.  Luckily, those are not perils today and we can simply enjoy the same stunning scenery that greeted Lewis and Clark and the pioneers. Only the weather remains untamed.

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Maine – A State to be Savored

View from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park

Maine is not exactly on the way to anywhere for Texans except Maine itself.  It’s the end of the road in the U.S. Northeast and not easy to get to whether driving or flying.  Because of its isolation from most of the country, it has retained a unique laid-back charm.  As our Portland guide indicated, the state of Maine is all about simplicity, a notable reason it feels like a different world.  Their economy centers around only four industries, starting with tourism.

Despite its isolation, Maine attracts thirty million visitors a year.  Let’s put that number in perspective.  First, there’s only 1,350,000 “Mainers,” a diminutive state compared to Texas’ almost 30 million inhabitants.  This means for every Maine resident, there are 22 visitors.  If that same number were applied to Texas, we would get 650,000,000 visitors each year and Lamar County would entertain over 1 million.  Those numbers are staggering to think about and require appreciation for Maine’s ability to maintain its beauty and charm amongst the visiting throngs.

A trail along the ocean side in Acadia National Park

The beauty of Maine is spread throughout the state with most vacations concentrating on the rocky coastline, but the mountainous interior can hold its own.  I had long wanted to visit Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of National Parks.  Whether walking along its coast with the deep blue ocean contrasting with the green forest path or driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain with its 360-degree view of the island’s lakes and mountains, Acadia didn’t disappoint.  The iconic photo is of the lighthouse at Bass Harbor did prove to be elusive.  To get the full view required maneuvering long stairs and large boulders.  I had to settle for the partial view – an acknowledgment of my advancing age.

The fishing industry, especially for lobster, is known around the world.  Lobster traps with their brightly painted buoys are seen all along the coast.  The 600 lobster fishermen are a close-knit group, and they know whose traps belong in what parts of the ocean.  There’s no written agreement amongst them on their territories – a fall back to the hand-shake, simpler times. There are observed rules on which lobsters can be kept and which must be thrown back.  Because of a past unpleasant reaction to eating lobsters, I didn’t partake of this most popular of Maine foods, but I did enjoy the other fresh seafood offerings.

Ship building is an unexpected industry, harking back to the establishment of the city of Portland.  The town began in 1786 as a convenient ice-free deep-water port close to Europe to ship goods from Canada and the U.S. to England.  Boats were needed and wood was plentiful.  Until the separation of the U.S. from England, any pine tree greater than 24 inches could be harvested for “the Crown” to be used as a boat mast, regardless of whether it was on private property or not.  A Royal arrow mark would be placed on the tree to be confiscated.  Today, there are still 200 ship building firms in Maine, primarily for fishing but luxury yachts are also constructed, mainly for Europeans and Middle East residents.

Maine has an inordinate number of natural farms, producing organic vegetables and fruit that are used in the famous restaurants spread throughout the state – it is a foodie destination. Among our favorite foods were the “duck frites” or French fried potatoes cooked in duck fat.    We missed the blueberry season that yields the most blueberries in our country, but pies and jams were still available.  Maine is the number one producer of maple syrup and we noted and savored the generous portions of syrup served with our breakfasts.   Add in the wood and paper products created from the forests and you have the fourth industry generated by the land.

Hartstone Inn – a bed and breakfast in Camden, Maine

 

 

Two of thousands of sailboats along the coast of Maine

 

 

The simple life is reflected by the activities along the highways and coast – Quaker meeting houses, a Sculling Lodge, Unitarian/Universalist Churches, clams, mussels, and cherry tomatoes for sale, lack of feeder roads along the freeways and thousands of small sailboats in every harbor.  Chain hotels were few with more charming bed and breakfasts readily available.  And their most popular store is not for western wear but carries hiking and camping inventory at the unusually large L.L. Bean in Freeport.

 

 

The hardest part about a visit to Maine is deciding where to go on a limited vacation time.  A friend posted on Facebook about this dilemma and asked for suggestions.  There were many.  We only stayed in Bar Harbor, Camden and Portland.  But my observation is that you simply can’t go wrong, wherever you choose to visit.  The crowds may be there but somehow the beauty shines through.  You just have to get there.

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The Trip Not Taken

I’ve always wanted to go to the Christmas markets in Europe.  The promotional photos look appropriately cheery with rows of booths filled with handmade toys, clothes, Christmas cake, and hot mulled wine.  Light snow may be falling. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose are available experiences.

With travel opening up in late summer and early fall, I approached my traveling girlfriends about going to the Croatian Christmas market, considered one of the best emerging European markets.  The uncertainty of crossing the Atlantic during active COVID season dampened that idea.  But Montreal and Quebec City have Christmas markets modeled on the European ones. Their COVID levels are less than ours.  And they spoke French, giving the experience of a foreign country without leaving our continent.  We were all in.

It’s not easy getting to Quebec City, a small but charming city filled with homes dating from the 1700 and 1800s.  We would have to fly through Montreal or Toronto first and then make our way to Quebec City with all of us scheduled to arrive in the evening of the first day. A townhouse from the late 1800s was booked under AirBnB with Luc as our host, located on Rue Saint Jean next to a patisserie. In addition to locally produced markets, the city hosts a German Christmas market that imports handmade goodies and Bratwurst from overseas.

Christmas Market Huts in Quebec City – What we hoped to see but didn’t

Montreal is more metropolitan but still has five Christmas markets listed in addition to their many leafy neighborhoods filled with boutique stores, organic markets, restaurants, and parks.  During this season, music programs are offered in some beautiful settings, including the full performance of Mozart’s Messiah at the St. Joseph’s Oratory located above Mont Royal park.  That was booked as was the four-hour train ride from Quebec City to Montreal through the beautiful countryside.  We were ready.

Recognizing the continued concern for COVID, Canada requires vaccination and a PCR test 72 hours before entry.  The rapid test is not sufficient.  Information on when your shots were taken have to to be entered on their ArriveCan App.  I discovered our hospital can do a PCR test with results in 15 minutes.  I made an appointment for the test on the Tuesday before our departure date. I also knew masks were required, even at the outdoor Christmas markets.  Canada is serious about containment of the virus.

Then the variant, Omicron, decided to make its appearance.  Originating in South Africa, it had moved up the continent and begun testing the waters of Europe.  Canada had two cases in Toronto and one in Montreal.  Scientists couldn’t confirm whether our vaccines would hold against the new form although they believed they would.  Questions abounded on whether it was a “serious” variant, making people sick, or just a mild case.  Travelers from southern Africa were banned from the United States and Canada.  What would be next?

On our departure date minus three days, I needed more information and called the Tourist Bureau of Montreal, expecting reassurance.  Martine answered the phone with a beautiful French accent, listened to my concern, and sighed.  “I wish I had an answer for you.  We just don’t know what will happen,” she acknowledged.  I told her my concern was not in getting the virus nor in the return into the United States but what might happen in Canada.  Could they close the Christmas markets as some countries in Europe had done already?  Could they still require a 14 day quarantine on our arrival?  She just couldn’t say but did express concern of a possible quarantine which would not be pleasant in a hotel room. She asked if we could get a full refund for our trip. I felt her encouraging us to reconsider.

It was time for a conference call with my traveling buddies. After updating them on my conversation with Martine, my friend from California seemed relieved to have an out.  Her children and husband had already been questioning her on the trip’s safety.  The Oregon friend had just fallen the day before, injuring her tailbone.  She wasn’t looking forward to the long plane rides. And I was tired of worrying about it.  Quickly, the trip was cancelled.  Surprisingly, we got full refunds from the airlines, railroad and AirBnBs.  The tickets to the performance of the Messiah were nonrefundable and we gave them to Martine. Only the open dates on the calendar remained.

I had planned to write this column about Canada’s Christmas Markets and experiencing winter in Canada.  Instead, I’m putting aside those UGG boots, long underwear, and heavy coat. I haven’t given up on the experience and at least it will be an easy trip to plan when we try again.  A’ la prochaine Quebec.

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Galveston Reveals Family Ties

Galveston Sea Wall at dawn

I am not my family’s historian and have yet to joined Ancestry. Unlike many genealogists, I have never traveled to research past connections. Two brothers had their saliva analyzed for past relations which confirmed we are strongly connected to the British Isle and Ireland.  For the rest of my background, I have relied on family trees produced by my older brother and some cousins, and family lore.

It was the family’s Galveston 1900 flood story that I grew up hearing that has always intrigued me.  While thousands died in the worst hurricane in American history, my great grandparents survived, moved to Houston and then to Plainview, Texas where I was born 50 years later.  On a trip to Galveston recently for a wedding, I dug deeper into the story to determine if any evidence remained of my family’s past there.

The 1900 Hurricane (named for its date rather than a person’s name) is infamous as the deadliest national disaster in American history.  The estimate of lives lost is 8000 out of a population of 37,000 – almost one in four and three times the loss of any other American hurricane.  There were warnings of the approaching storm on September 8th, but they were either ignored or not widely spread.

I can only wonder if my great grandparents were aware of the pending disaster.  The story passed down through four generations is of my great grandfather and their oldest son spending the night of the hurricane in a school and my great grandmother and two of their children (including my grandmother) moving up the stairways in a nearby home step by step as the water rose.  She was at the last landing of the two-story home when the water crested and began to recede.  Neither of my great grand parents knew if the other had survived until the next morning.  Since most of the city’s buildings were destroyed, my family quickly vacated Galveston.

My great grandparents’ home in Galveston that weathered the 1900 storm

Thanks to a 1900 city directory, I was able to locate my great grandparents’ home on Winnie Street.  It still stands and has a diamond shaped marker on the outside indicating the home survived the 1900 storm, but it is now divided into four apartments.  I rang the doorbell but was unable to rouse a renter.  The Rosenburg school is still a block away but has been rebuilt.  I was also able to find the home of my great great Uncle Jeff.  Other prior family homes have been absorbed by the Galveston Medical Center, near Big Red, home of the original medical school.  My greatgrandfather’s grocery store is now an industrial electrical site.

Galveston’s reputation as the city who has survived the most hurricanes has generated a tourist industry complete with a “Hurricane Tour” which we took.  In air-conditioned comfort, we learned the history of the seventeen-foot sea wall, built to protect the island after the 1900 hurricane.  The need for the wall seemed obvious but it was the raising of the structures of the entire town that was most impressive. Home and businesses were lifted by hand turned jackscrews while sand from the ocean floor was brought to fill in the space created.  Structures nearest the water were raised the most, gradually tapering off across the island.

One of many wood carvings from lost trees from Hurricane Ike

Downtown on the Strand is a building with lines indicating the height of each storm surge, always the deadliest part of the storm.  The sea wall did its job until Hurricane Ike which came from a different direction and caused a surge of 19 feet.  On the tour, the driver pointed out unique wooden carvings in yards where trees had died from Hurricane Ike, a creative response to the disaster.

Stained Glass Window at Moody Methodist church dedicated to my great great grandmother, Caroline Davis.

The bonus in this forage into family history was the Moody Methodist Church, a large church built in 1962 thanks to a generous bequest from Libbie Moody.  My early family attended St. James Methodist Church, a predecessor of the Moody church.  Another family story was of a stained-glass window at St. James dedicated to my great greatgrandmother, Caroline Davis.  The receptionist at the front desk of the Moody church, though, was not aware of any preserved stained-glass window from the old church but offered to show us the sanctuary.  At the doors into the inner church, she glanced to her right and pointed out one stained glass window that she had forgotten about.  And, there it was – a lovely white robed angel holding lilies with a dedication at the bottom, “in Memoriam, Mrs. Caroline Davis.”

I’m confident few in the large Moody Methodist Church have paid much attention to this old stained-glass window but for me it was the strongest connection yet to a family history that launched my eventual presence in Texas. And I must now admit – family history trips have much to give.

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MEDINAS of MOROCCO– FULL OF LIFE

Betty Swasko, Tina Smith, Mary Grace West and Mary Clark in the smallest of the lanes in the Fez Medina

I admit to being partial to medinas – those cloistered markets and neighborhoods encircled by old city walls in Northern Africa.  Some, as in Tunisia and Egypt, have become centered around tourists, but in Morocco, many generations continue to call the medina home and there’s much to explore.

An immediate challenge upon entering through an ancient gate of a medina is orientation.  Some roads have been enlarged to accommodate small cars or delivery trucks, but most are walking lanes to allow easy movement from side to side to shop.  The main hazards are donkeys laden with goods that can fill a path and motorcycles, which I consider the flies of the market – loud, persistent, and fast.  Some forward- thinking medina managers prohibit motorcycles on certain roads but in Marrakech, we were on constant alert for their approaching sounds, occasionally even being grazed by a leather jacket as it passed.

I learned to note landmarks or signs to remember the many turns to return to our hotels. Large squares such as Jeema el Fna in Marrakech with its snake charmers are helpful for orientation.  Names of hotels with arrows pointing down a lane are notable.  An unusual store or restaurant helps.  I had studied a map of the Marrakech Medina before traveling there, mentally marking our hotel location close to a major gate. This preparation was made easier by Google maps.  But a map on the screen is different than on the ground when your phone doesn’t work in the middle of a large Medina.

One of my traveling companions to Morocco had discovered the app “map my walk” that marks wherever you walk and then theoretically you can simply return the same way.  But in a medina, we were often sidetracked by shops and sights.  The resulting map from one day in the Chefchouen Medina looked like a game of Life with intersecting circles, ovals, and an occasional detour.

The world’s largest medina is in Fez, established in 789 CE, also location of the world’s oldest university and where 149,000 still live within the stucco walls.  At the gate, the hotel’s porter loaded our luggage on a wooden cart. He led, we followed. It was late at night, and I didn’t have the energy to make necessary mental notes of location. And, even with a good sense of direction, I couldn’t identify north or south or anything in between.

The next morning our guide met us at the Riad hotel, a beautifully repurposed home, and soon we were off through the narrow ways.  He explained the large doors to a home were for guests and the small door for family.  Slatted windows above the door protected a woman’s face but allowed her to watch the scene below.  A small cemetery provided instructions on how Muslims are buried on their sides facing Mecca so that in the next life they will have the Koran in the right hand.  The Jewish quarters were moved outside the original medinas and now most of its residents have immigrated to Israel, Europe, or the United States.

 

The Fez medina is known for its tanneries which we chose to miss but its meat market included heads of goats, donkeys, and cows, clearly marking what was sold at each store. The souks or specialized market areas provided almost overwhelming choices of shoes, leather good, herbs, candies with live bees on them, dried fruits, olives, jewelry, antiques, and copper, silver, and woven goods. Numerous madrasa schools and mosques dotted the inner city.  We were reminded that Morocco is a kingdom as one of the king’s 26 palaces is in the Fez Medina.

One of the gates to the royal palace in Fez 

A late typical lunch greeted us as we detoured down a non-descript hallway and into a stunning dining room of a hidden restaurant. The three courses began with four to seven small dishes – often potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, and okra.  Then a tagine or couscous dish.  Fresh fruit rounded out the meal as the dessert.  Until we arrived in Marrakesh with its more creative cuisine, this was our meal almost every day.

 

 

 

 

Noura, our guide in Marrakech

Our Fez guide made the tour all about history which I loved and wouldn’t allow even a short detour into a booth.   But in Marrakech, we had one of very few women guides in Morocco and she understood the need for a balance.

Noura asked about our shopping goals and took us to appropriate locations all over the medina with good quality and prices. We needed her guidance toward authentic Moroccan products rather than Chinese imitations.

 

 

Our Airbnb in Marakkesh provided a feel for living in the Medina – quiet home behind thick walls and closed doors.  But it was the thriving commerce and humanity in the lanes that I loved – a condensed human buzz that’s impossible to duplicate in American cities.

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