Mary Clark, Traveler


 Palm Sunday has always been a favorite service, especially for children.  It celebrates the story of Jesus unexpectedly entering Jerusalem on a donkey.  His followers hurried to line the streets and waived branches and laid coats before him.  Traditionally, palms have represented triumph and victory and have become associated with this Sunday.  Many churches use processions into or around the church to recreate Jesus’ path through Jerusalem.  I had the opportunity of experiencing Palm Sunday where it all began.  

Our Palm Sunday actually started in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Holy Nativity.  Occasionally, the church calendar for the Orthodox and the Latin churches are aligned, meaning Palm Sunday and Easter are on the same days.  This caused  services to be staggered that day so all could enjoy their palm processions.

As we awaited the start of the Greek Orthodox service, I watched the young altar boys dressed in purple jab at each other as kids will do universally.  But soon the chanting began and the long procession slowly circled the church led by the priests, incense burners, acolytes, banners, choir, and then church members, all carrying palms or olive tree branches.  That service would be followed by the Armenian rites.  A separate space serves the Latin church as the Roman Catholics are called in Israel.

Later that day, we crossed back through the Security Wall and saw many Bethlehem residents hurrying to participate in the Palm Sunday processions in Jerusalem.  Because of the crowds, our cab driver could only drop us off several blocks from the start of the Latin parade on the Mount of Olives.  The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial and international.  While we waited, local children peddled palms and olive branches. Spontaneous songs broke out from the diverse groups around us.

I grabbed one of my sisters-in-law and we started walking up the street.  “Where are you from?”, we asked many.  Poland.  The Philippines.  France.  Korea.   Jerusalem. The Maldives. Russia.  Spain.  There were American Mormon teenagers from Nevada,  Girl Scouts,  Boy Scouts,  and a tour group with identifying green kerchiefs.  Gimme hats indicated other tours – “G&S Travel” or “Shepherd’s Since 1965″.  A large contingency hailed from Timor Leste – a sliver of a country near Indonesia that is 96% Catholic and which has only recently begun recovery from years of wars.  All smiled broadly as we snapped their pictures.

The procession began quietly with a few Israeli soldiers leading the way.  But it soon reflected the diversity within the greater world of Christianity.  Six foot palms marked the beat with the drums in a large group from Africa.  Praise songs and dirges were piped out of speakers held by pilgrims.  Franciscan monks, with Crocodile Dundee hats,  carried songbooks and were accompanied by tambourines and guitars.   An elderly woman wearing a hat displaying her mother’s picture  was pushed in her wheel chair.  There were priests by the dozens and nuns of all colors.   At times, it felt like a small town parade.

In the past, a person playing Jesus would ride a donkey at the end.  But, today, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Foud Twal, brought up the rear.  In his resplendent pink robes and gold-rimmed sunglasses, Twal, also the Archbishop of Jordan, carried only a small olive branch.   Those on the sidelines could join the procession at any time as it descended from the Mount of Olives, entered through Jerusalem’s Lions gate, and terminated at the Church of Sainte Anne.  Israeli soldiers provided a rear guard.

The Catholic procession was not the only one that day.  The Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox schedule services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as do the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox.   From 1 to 6 a.m. on Palm Sunday, Ethiopian Orthodox members play drums, cymbals and tambourines and celebrate Mass.  We also saw the last of a procession outside Old Jerusalem’s wall that was just ending at 5 p.m.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of Holy Week for millions of Christians.  The next few days are always  more somber and reflective.  But on that beautiful Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem, the mood was light, the music varied, and the atmosphere inclusive.   For that moment, the divisions in Christianity seemed healed.

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Clint Frakes – Bringing a Spiritual Link to Environmental Consciousness

Clint Frakes

Clint Frakes’ web site promotes his longevity as a tour guide in Sedona, Arizona.   “Guiding pilgrims on Turtle Island sacred sites since 1993” is an offer to explore some important North American locations.   Seekers come to him for spiritual guidance, others for Native American history in the area, and all for his breadth of knowledge.  This gentle man sees life as a published poet would – in observations of the general world made succinct – and with eyes trained by Native Americans.

Clint grew up in Detroit, Michigan.  But after attending Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Clint was adopted in adulthood by a Lakota (Sioux) family who provided him a “simple spiritual way to guide his life.”  He became a man of prayer and uses Native American practices daily.  On his tour, Clint was able to connect us to the centuries old respect local tribes have for the natural world.

Airport Mesa

At our first stop on Airport Mesa, we meditated on the red rock, considered a wisdom keeper.  Clint quietly educated us.  All things that have transpired from the beginning to now are downloaded into stones – the same silicon used in Silicon Valley.  We only needed to increase our capacity to receive this wisdom of the past.

Yerba Santa

As we walked the paths in the area, Clint revealed the healing properties of indigenous plants – long known by Native Americans.  The plant, Mormon Tea, is good for colds and sinus headaches.  Manzanita helps bladder infections.  Use the Banana Yucca for joint inflamation and prickly pear for scorpion bites.  Red Root dissolves cysts.  But the most powerful is Yerba Santa, used as a lung expectorant and also a treatment for depression.  Since my asthma had acted up in the dust, I wanted to try this one.  Clint advised me to ask permission of the plant to take some leaves and to make an offering.  We poured water on the plant, broke off leaves, and thanked it for its generosity – a surprisingly satisfying gesture.

Kachina rock formation in Boynton Canyon

Boynton Canyon, the Garden of Eden of the Yavapai-Apache people,  was our next stop.  Their legend describes man as emerging from this canyon. But first was Kamalpukwia, the “Old Lady White Stone” who was impregnated by the sun.  The nearby “ Kachina Rock” formation resembles this pregnant woman who later gives birth – by one account to twin boys and by another to a girl – from which all tribes came.  Today, there are many coming home ceremonies in the Sedona area by various Native American tribes  – of the same kind of desire to return to Jerusalem by the Jewish tribes.

Our last experience with Clint involved a Lakota Medicine Wheel he had constructed on a well-hidden lot. This formation is the “underpinning of all ceremonies”, a template for the story of creation.   Each of the 405 stones in the circle represents one earth medicine. Vertical and horizontal lines of stones cross within and a second circle in the middle signifies the Eye of God or one who unites.   The inner formation resembles a Jerusalem cross.

Any spiritual belief can be incorporated into the Medicine Wheel experience.  The four quarters can represent the four seasons, directions or  Gospels.  The first instruction was to take a concern or prayer. We then stepped into the circle from the east, where life begins,  and stated “all my relations” to honor all things as our brothers and sisters.  As we circled three (usually four) times, our prayers were energized by the physical movement and Clint’s singing.  After each of us chose a site to sit inside the circle, Clint explained the meanings of our selections. My quarter was associated with guardian angels, an image I liked a lot.  We exited the circle next to where we began and gave each other a traditional embrace.

Lakota Medicine Wheel 

The Lakotas believe the web of the wheel holds the earth together and man is essential to the balance of earth.  We’re part of the eco-system that must support the natural world around us as that world sustains us.  Our brief encounter with the way Lakotas acknowledge this web helped us appreciate the strong connection between nature and Native Americans – a link that our country’s environmental  consciousness is finally recognizing as essential to the survival of man.  And as a man with a foot in both worlds, Clint Frakes was the perfect guide to bring the two together.

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Will The Real Sedona, Arizona Please Stand Up?

Tourists visit Sedona, Arizona for as many reasons as there are strata in the surrounding canyon walls – made beautiful by the collision of the Sonoran Desert with the Colorado Plateau.  Until recently,  Sedona’s history was not that different from other desert towns.  Native Americans respected the area as a site for sacred ceremonies and it played a key role in the story of the beginning of man through the Kachina woman in Yavapai/Apache lore.  Coronado and his conquistadores mapped the area in the 1500’s.    Pioneer farmers planted orchards near the waters and ranchers spread out their cattle and sheep.  It was quietly discovered by retirees and some artists in the 1950’s and 60’s including Max Ernst.   But in 1978, the attitude and crowd changed.

One of several psychics

Paige Bryant is a well known psychic who lived in Sedona in the late 70’s and 80’s.  She felt  strong energy sources emanating from below and above the earth – cosmic portals.   Her description of four vortexes of electromagnetic energy began to draw spiritual tourists.  By 1987, Sedona was one of the hosts for the Harmonic Convergence, the world’s first globally synchronized meditation or human intention for the good of the planet.

Holy Cross Catholic Chapel

Soon the Chamber of Commerce, hotels, and restaurants saw the potential in a united presentation of the energy sources in Sedona.   On their maps, small tornado vortex forms hover over Bryant’s sites of Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa, and Bell Rock.  Crystal shops and yoga tours followed.  The phone books now lists 11 local psychics who can help your sensitivities.

By the 1990’s, the attraction of Sedona’s beauty could no longer be contained.  Larger resort companies such as Hyatt began buying out ranching families and turning the desert into sun retreats with golf and other amenities.  Time shares proliferated.   More retirees came as did movie stars.   And, of course, the service population grew with the tourist industry although most of those employees must commute from nearby towns with a lower cost of housing.  The average cost of a home in Sedona is $394,000.

Businesses along the main drag reflect the hodge-podge offerings for the two million tourists visiting this town of 12,000 inhabitants each year.  Jeep Rentals compete with Crystal Magic for customers.  Hot Yoga and Canyon Outfitters appeal to different crowds.  Cashing in on a more recent industry, the Sedona Wedding Studio vies for the destination couples.

Buddhist Stupa
Buddhist Rock Cairn

The religious world is just as mixed.    A variety of Baptist churches, a single Cowboy Church and the usual list of mainline Protestant denominations compete with Mormons, the area’s largest group.  The stunning Holy Cross Catholic chapel,  designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright,  peaks out between two large red rock towers,  rumored to also be a vortex site.  And the laid back crowd is treated to a rare, western Buddhist Stupa, considered to be the living presence of the Budha and to have healing powers.  Its affect is reflected in the many Buddhist rock cairns built on and added to the trails of the area.

The result of this cauldron of interests is something for everyone.   Hikers happily choose from a maze of trails in and out of the red canyons.  Meditators easily find a quiet spot  to inhale earth’s energy. More sedentary  adventurers ride in pink jeeps that haul them up to mesa tops for a full 360 degree view of the geological wonder.   In the mornings, hot air balloons linger above.  Golfers soak in the clear air and temperate climate for months of playing time.  And, everyone seems to pull off the roads in the late afternoon to take in one more glorious sunset.

Sunset in Sedona

Sedona’s Community Plan acknowledges the challenge of maintaining local character and quality of life while ensuring a quality experience for the visitors.  The balance is delicate,  especially at high season.  But Sedona’s been dealt an amazing hand of light, air, and beauty that will continue to draw crowds.  And whether it’s spiritual solace or spa soaks, Sedona will deliver – as it always has.

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What Is There To do in Commerce and Cooper, Texas?

 Planetarium on the campus of Texas A&M University, Commerce

The first major sight of Commerce from the north, south, and west is the campus of Texas A&M University at Commerce. The twelve story Whitley Hall is the tallest structure between Dallas and Texarkana.  This 123 year old school of almost 10,000 students has undergone major construction and revision in the last ten years and has become a welcoming, vibrant campus. It is the fastest growing university in the Texas A&M system.   Much of the activity in town is centered around the campus. Here are some suggestions for your visit there and in nearby Cooper.

The Texas A&M Planetarium on campus.  Offering weekly shows, the planetarium helps connect this little spot of Texas with the universe out there.  Comfortable chairs recline and allow star viewing without a stiff neck.  A professor often appears at the end of the programs for follow up questions and comments.  It’s a deal for students and visitors.  If you’re really lucky, there is occasional public viewing  at the nearby Observatory.

Menu at Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro

Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro. Don’t be fooled by the name.  The fare here is not limited to their lovely cakes.  Just across the street from campus is this surprisingly diverse bakery that serves a nice assortment of soups, salads, and sandwiches in addition to their sweet offerings.  The daily soup specials are made with fresh herbs and cheese.

Panda Chinese Restaurant downtown.   Billed as “Fine Chinese Cuisine”, it is, at last, a Chinese restaurant without a buffet.  This means all dishes are freshly made and the choices almost limitless.  We shared several dishes including one of my favorites, Mu Shu Pork.  You can even have Tsing Tao beer with the your meal.

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum on campus.   It’s very unusual to have a children’s museum in such a small town.  Visiting children can push their own grocery cart, climb into a space ship, pull a bubble up around them, explore a tipi, or try their hand at hieroglyphics.  Area schools send buses of kids for special science or health programs.  The many activities fill the common area of a former dormitory that can hold and entertain a lot of children.

The Commerce Public Library downtown.  A stop at the local library gives you two for one – a fully stocked library amidst a 100 year old former post office.  There’s a large selection of historical archives downstairs.  It’s owned by the Commerce Friends of the Library rather than the City and serves several smaller communities.  Check out all of the architectural ornaments remaining from its post office days

KETR radio station on campus.  For a town of 9200 to have available a 100,000 watt radio station is unusual and impressive.  Owned by Texas A&M University, KETR started in 1975 and was greatly expanded in the 1980’s.  Today, it hosts national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” but has wonderful evening music programs centered around Texas Music Artists, Latin Jazz, and Blue Grass.  It also features locals for political and cultural discussion.  Full Disclosure- it carries my radio show, Mary Clark, Traveler

Down the Road from Commerce on the way to Paris is small Cooper, Texas which drops a visitor into a turn of the century East Texas town.  Most people take the bypass around but there are some reasons to linger.

Soda Fountain at Miller’s Pharmacy
Menu at Miller’s Pharmacy

Miller’s Pharmacy  drug store downtown is known far and wide for having an old fashioned soda fountain.  This translates into “real” shakes and malts.  Mabel Wheat still greets you after 60 years in the same location.

Elias Richa, Owner of Little Chef
Little Chef Restaurant

A newcomer to the Cooper is the Little Chef Restaurant on West Dallas Street, a transplant from the Metroplex.  The owner, Elias Richa, got tired of the big city life and brought his restaurant to Cooper.  The menu is ambitious and offers a wonderful assortment of omelettes for the breakfast and brunch crowd as well as sandwiches and meals at lunch and dinner.

Cooper Automatic Gas

An old fashioned gas station experience is available at Cooper Automatic Gas and the Delta County Museum is just down Dallas street. On the square are many more restaurants than expected – Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill, the Pizza Factory and Burgers & Beans.

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From Serbia to Paris, Texas via a Concentration Camp

This is part of a series of occasional articles about individuals who have traveled to Lamar County to live.

Paul Bayer’s journey to Paris began as World War II wound down in Eastern Europe and with a  grandmother who saved his life more than once.  Paul was born on November 2, 1941 into an upper crust family who owned 100 acres of land in what was then St Georgen, Serbia.  Germans had settled in this area after the break- up of the  Ottoman Empire 200 years before.  With high producing farms, it was a tidy, industrious enclave of what would later become Yugoslavia.  When WWII started, Paul’s father was conscripted into the German army. But the family’s real travails began as the war ended and  Yugoslav guerillas arrived and began moving German speaking citizens around.

In 1945, Paul’s mother was sent to a work camp on the Romanian border.  She did not to see her parents or children for three years.  Their farm was given to a Slavik family.   Paul and his sisters were placed in a concentration camp of 28,000 where his maternal grandmother, Anna Nothof,  used her Red Cross training to treat the sick.   Thin soup and bread barely kept them alive.  Cow dung was searched for undigested corn kernels to clean, grind and eat.  Kept in the basement at night, the children’s shirts were inspected each morning for lice.  When Paul and his sister came down with diphtheria, his grandmother was able to obtain the toxin injection to save them.  Paul also survived typhus.  But in the first winter, his paternal grandmother died of starvation as did his great grandmother and one-third of the camp. 

When packages from relatives in America were cut off in 1947, Anna realized she and her husband would have to escape with their seven grandchildren in order to survive.  After bribing a sentry guard, they set out on September 12th at 2:00 AM  to walk to the Hungarian border, about 50 miles away.

The journey took two months and three days.  They were caught twice and returned to camps.   While on the run, Paul remembers sitting inside corn sheaves during the day and being admonished to be quiet while it was light.   His grandmother cut pieces of corn stalk for the kids to suck out moisture.  Like a mother bird, she would also chew hard food until it was soft and feed it to the children. 

They survived by the kindness of strangers as Anna knocked on doors at night and begged for food.  Finally, in Linz, Austria, they were reunited with Paul’s parents.  Because of malnutrition, Paul had no hair and his head was painted with iodine, causing the new hair to be red.  The family lived in a dance hall’s washroom for men before immigrating to Canada in 1950.  Paul was nine years old.

In Canada, the Bayer family first hired out to work on a tobacco farm but gradually accumulated a thousand acres and 10,000 hogs in Kitchener, Ontario, a town with a long German history.  Paul married Elizabeth Bayer and they had four children.  But the snow depressed him and the farming regulations were stifling. 

When a realtor named Kenn Justice came up north with stories of $1,000 an acre land in Texas,  Paul was interested as were thirteen other Canadians. They looked at Vinita, OK, Dalhart and Paris and he chose Lamar County.  In 1983,  the year the Bayer family moved to Paris, temperatures were below freezing for 13 straight days.  After years of Canadian winters, Paul wore short sleeves and was amused at our discomfort.  

Paul and his family prospered in Texas even if the promised two crops didn’t materialize.  He serves on the Farm Bureau board and has become accustomed to our more laid back approach.  “ What’s the advantage of being the richest man in the graveyard,” he quips.  

Paul Bayer’s story is unusual for our town.  He survived a concentration camp because of his grandmother’s resourcefulness and determination, journeyed across two continents and an ocean , and finally hung up his hat in Lamar County.   He can appreciate our quiet, peaceful life more than most and can help us all do the same. 

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Jordan’s Desert Slowly Reveals History of Petra

Treasury at Petra

I well remember the first photos I saw of the ruins of the rose city of Petra, reflecting a two thousand year old Nabataean culture in Jordan’s desert.  The most magnificent picture was of The Treasury, delicately carved into the sandstone, appearing to be the facade of a Greek temple.  It looked mysteriously deserted.  Directors of the movie, “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade”, filmed portions of the ruins and it was soon the major tourist destination in Jordan.

Around 312 BCE.,  Petra was selected as the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe that catered to caravans passing through the desert.    These early lumbering modes of transportation contained up to 100 people and 1,000 camels and carried the era’s most precious commodity – spices –  including the Biblical frankincense.  They  needed a “truck stop” that could protect the traders and water the animals.  To provide this,  the Nabataeans developed an hydraulic engineering system that diverted swollen winter waters, pumped water along stone pipes through the canyon and created areas of conservation.   Following the adage “if you build it, they will come”, the caravan routes soon included Petra on their maps and its residents became wealthy.

First glimpse of the Treasury from the siq

Petra’s history plays out in the entry siq, a narrow canyon that follows the flow of the water that created it, past carvings of camel caravans in the wavy red and brown sandstone walls,  and along chariot tracks from the  original Roman stones paving the pathway.  We first stumbled our way down this road by moonlight to the Treasury to enjoy an evening presentation of local Bedouin flute music amid candle-lit luminares – “a downright fairy-tale magical experience” as described in our itinerary.   Except for the ambulance tucked into one corner, the dark scene was ancient.

Carving of camel feet
Entry Siq

By daylight, the entry gorge was even more spectacular with twists and turns and overhanging canyon walls. It was first known as the “via sacra” or sacred way with no animal sacrifices allowed. Tombs were tucked into the walls, including one of a 27 year old with an inscription, “His death caused everlasting pain to his mother” – a pain we could still feel.  Wheels from horse drawn carriages loudly clanged by us over the stones carrying tourists deeper into the ruins.  Around the corner from the Treasury, the canyon opened up to a treasure trove of archaeological finds.

Roman temple

Roman columns

Theater cut in rock

In 64 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered the popular Petra.  Even Emperor Hadrian visited the site.  And since Romans built wherever they went, an open colonnaded street spread before us as we exited the siq.  Royal and common tombs were carved high above the valley floor.  An original Nebataean theater, cut in rock and enlarged by the Romans to 34 rows, had held 10,000 people – a significant chunk of the 35,000 who lived here.

Floor Mosaics from Byzantine Church

In 1990, the American Kenneth Russell uncovered the next layer of history, a Byzantine church dating to 400 CE.  After Christianity was established as Rome’s state religion,  Petra supported a bishop and as many as 12 churches.  At Russell’s church, perfectly intact floor mosaics gave glimpses of everyday life including animals, plants, and shepherds.  Stones from the Roman buildings were reused for the church – early recycling.  And a pile of 150 papyrus rolls found in the church brought that era to life with information on marriage and divorce contracts, references to tribes, and decisions about land ownership.

Our guide, a former archeologist, explained earthquakes caused the city to decline.  At its peek, the Petra area was 70 square miles but today, only 1% has been excavated.  Universities and countries around the world are funding and manning the search for more ruins.

“Roman Centurions”
Surveying rock movement

Jordan is trying to balance the need for tourist largesse and protecting the World Heritage Site.  Other than the entry fee, visitors can spend money on horse, camel or carriage rides, pictures with costumed Roman centurions, guides, food, drink, or post cards and jewelry sold by children and Bedouin women.  But we also saw archeological digs and a scientist monitoring the movement of an overhead rock in the siq to protect tourists below.  Petra is no longer deserted but the excitement now is in what remains to be discovered. – a ruin that just keeps on giving.

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Modern Day Bethlehem and the Christmas Story

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

What a beautiful scene this hymn describes – a small, quiet, peaceful town  hosts the birth of Jesus.  In the Bible, God’s physical presence on earth begins quietly.  Yet, the reality of Bethlehem today plays out in the rough and tumble  politics of the area.

Bethlehem is really a suburb of Jerusalem – a mere five miles separates them.  It hosts the largest population of Christians in Israel and has traditionally been a required stop for pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Until 2006, this was an easy bus or taxi ride away.  Because Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, excursions became more complicated when Israel built a security wall to protect Jerusalem from terrorists.  Bethlehem is now separated from her neighbor by a 26 foot tall concrete fence, 14 feet taller than the Berlin Wall.    Israel defends the necessity of this partition as it has significantly reduced bombings and deaths.  Bethlehem argues the wall has separated families and friends, hurt commuting workers and  frightened away tourists.

Identification machine for fingerprints

Our day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem began with a taxi ride to the Security Wall.  The Jordanian driver (married to a Palestinian woman) phoned his contact on the other side of the wall to be sure we would be met.  We walked down a long, narrow passageway  into a metal building. Those ahead of us had to place their hands on a fingerprint pad for verification.  But  Israeli checkpoint guards didn’t even inspect our passports and waved us through.  After another long, winding walk, we exited to a crowd of taxi drivers.  Fortunately, Adnun, our guide, spotted us.

The short drive into Bethlehem followed the Security Wall,  filled on this side with graffiti and anti-Israel comments.  Adnun pointed out Bethlehem University which is financed by the United States and other European Countries.   Their police are also trained by U.S. forces.  Yet, he claimed tourist numbers are down due in part to our State Department’s warning against travel in the West Bank. As a Christian working in the tourist industry, Adnun was frustrated by this.  He had kind words for “The Lonely Planet” travel guidebook who strongly encourages readers to base their stay in quiet Bethlehem rather than the more expensive Jerusalem.

We visited The Church of the Nativity, where Palm Sunday services were being celebrated by the Orthodox Church, followed by the Armenians, and then Roman Catholics.  A new placard was hung each time the service changed.  Thanks to our guide’s persuasive ability and our claim to speak Spanish, we were allowed into the small grotto below the church for a celebration of a Spanish Mass. This is sacred territory, where it is believed Jesus was born – not in a stable but a cave.  While we waited, a tearful, blind woman was led by a family member to reverently touch  a silver star on the marble floor, indicating holy ground below.

Also in the Christmas story are shepherds in the field watching their sheep at night.  In that time, many shepherds lived in caves that were large enough even for their flocks to stay at night. At the “Shepherd’s Field YMCA”,  located at the edge of Bethlehem, a cave typical of the time of Jesus has been preserved in its rural setting..  We had to honk outside the gate to be allowed in, the only visitors that day.  The cave was spacious, cool, and surprisingly comfortable.  And it was here, away from the crowds of the Church of the Nativity, the politics of the Security Wall, and the ever present traffic, that the air of 2000 years ago could be breathed and the story imagined. It was a quiet moment when Bethlehem was as still as in the carol we sing and as peaceful as we can only hope for the entire region.

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Brooklyn, New York – An Emerging Travel Destination With Much to Do

Pop quiz time.  Which of the five boroughs of New York has the most residents? Which claims that one out of every six Americans can trace an ancestor back to it?  And which borough would be the 4th largest city in the country if it were an independent city?  The answer is Brooklyn.  At a population of 2.5 million, it is twice as big as Dallas.  Yet, few visitors venture past the East River to this community rich in architecture, ethnic cultures and history.  We had an opportunity to explore it during a Thanksgiving visit to our son’s new residence.

Life long Brooklyn resident, “Big Rick” Kadlub, guided us the first day on a walking tour.  He has watched real estate prices soar in recent years by those looking for a better bargain than in neighboring Manhattan.  Thanks to a four story zoning limit, much of Brooklyn feels like a neighborhood and is being rediscovered. The Park Slope area is an example.  In the 1950’s it was an enclave for Italians and Irish, filled with Latinos and African Americans in the 60’s. was joined by artists in the 70’s and discovered by young professionals in the 90’s.  New families now fill the beautiful brownstones and frequent the many restaurants.  Big Rick shook his head in wonder as hundreds of residents stream out of nearby subway stops in late afternoon – a stark contrast to the trickle of commuters in the past.

While most Americans know of Central Park, few are aware of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, designed by the same Frederick Olmstead.  In fact, many consider Prospect Park superior to its Manhattan cousin and I have to agree.  Six hundred acres of forest provides strolling paths, the largest park meadow in the country, Brooklyn’s only lake, a zoo, birding opportunities, and an outdoor ice rink.  Next door are the Botanical Gardens,  Art Deco public library filled with books in 70 languages, and the Brooklyn Art Museum, a near replica of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that houses the first feminist gallery and its famous Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago.

On our second day, a 20 minute subway ride took us to the grandfather of all amusement parks, Coney Island.  The subway exit opens directly across from “Nathan’s World Famous Frankfurters since 1916″, a required stop even though it was only 10 a.m.  We joined Al Capone, Cary Grant, Jacqueline Kennedy, Winston Churchill and the King and Queen of England as samplers of these surprisingly good hot dogs.  Across the street was the equally famous amusement park, sadly closed for the season.

The boardwalk along the Atlantic was even better than I had hoped for.  We merged with a leisurely crowd of mostly elderly pensioners strolling down the well-maintained wooden walk.  The clean beach was almost empty but could clearly hold the masses in the summer.  As we approached Brighton Beach, a Russian immigrant stopped to chat and tell us how much he loved America.  Originally built as an exclusive resort for the wealthy in 1909, Brighton Beach has most recently become the largest Russian community in New York.  Russian restaurants lined the beach and along Brighton Beach Avenue.  Bilingual signs advertised child care and dental offices. And a liquor store with a lit neon hammer and sickle boasted of many kinds of vodka.  We enjoyed a lunch of traditional Russian fare such as pelmenis and varkenikis.

On the last morning,  we walked with our one year old grandson across the 128 year old  Brooklyn Bridge and introduced him to the Manhattan skyline.  Through the weblike cables, the Statue of Liberty beckoned.  And on the return walk,  Brooklyn spread across the horizon.  Now no longer just one of the boroughs, Brooklyn had proved itself a worthy travel destination with much more to be discovered.  I look forward to it.

      Tour Guide, Richard Kadlub – A Tour Grows in Brooklyn, 212-209-3370

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Decades Later, Connecting With Ahmet Yilmaz, A Turkish Exchange Student

 It had been 45 years since I last saw Ahmet Yilmaz.  We shared a year at Plainview High School in 1965-66 when he arrived as an exchange student from Turkey.  Ahmet was placed through the American Field Service, originally a program for ambulance drivers in World War I that morphed into a student exchange.  In his year, 1500 students from around the world came to the United States to “connect lives and share cultures”.

Ahmet was selected from 600 students in his high school.  Because of his request for an agricultural community, he landed in Plainview, Texas, a High Plains farming town that knew much more about football and Baptists than soccer and Islam.  With an easy smile and open heart, Ahmet embraced all that was good about Texas – its people, friendliness, love of beef, and even the cowboy hat.  He was a favorite in our school.   My husband and I were traveling to Turkey and I wanted to find him.

Ahmet Yilmaz and Ed Clark

A Google search for Ahmet Yilmaz yielded hundreds of options.  That is, apparently, a very common name.  Only when I added Plainview, Texas to his name did I eventually find  the web site for Ahmet’s wife, Gonul Engin, an accomplished artist.  Soon we were corresponding and planning to meet in Istanbul.

Ahmet arrived at our hotel with a huge smile and hugged us all.  Despite the loss of hair and weight gain,  he still enthusiastically embraced life, just as in high school.  We compared stories while strolling to the er&ne&met Carpet Store where my husband and I were interested in purchasing a Turkish rug.

Ahmet Yilmaz on the terrace of carpet store

The traditional tea was first offered on the store’s landscaped terrace under the shadow of the Blue Mosque.  Ahmet’s excitement soon bubbled over as he began chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Come on Bulldogs, Let’s go” I jumped in.  “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Come on Bulldogs, Let’s go” Then we moved to  “Push ‘em back, Push ‘em back, WAAAAY back.”  The carpet owners looked bewildered as we laughed our way through football memories from decades past, including Ahmet’s one attempt to play.  Because of a cheerleader distraction, he missed the quarterback’s call and was run over by the offense.

Ahmet and Gonul Yilmaz

Upon returning to his homeland, Ahmet spent his career in education and first thought of opening private universities in Turkey as an option to public schools.  He helped establish the Istanbul Culture University where course work is taught in English and he served as its first administrator.

On our day of touring with Ahmet, he filled us with Turkish information.  All state schools, hospitals, and medicine are free.  Private health insurance cost around $3,000 a year and private universities between $5,000 and $10,000.  There are 147 churches, 18 synagogues, and 3000 mosques in Istanbul, a city with a history of religious tolerance.

“If a person is a real Moslem, he could never be a terrorist.  We can’t harm anything,” Ahmet assured us.  Many Turks have Biblical names like Musa for Moses and Isa for Jesus.  All Iman salaries are paid by the government and no charge made for utilities at mosques.  Maintenance is provided by the sale of the carpets which Muslims are required to give once in their lifetimes.  No one “belongs” to a mosque – a Muslim usually just  prays at the nearest one.

During our yacht ride on the Bosphorus Strait, Ahmet continued his lessons.  One thousand boats pass through these waters every day and the larger ones must have a Turkish pilot.  Nine computer controlled towers give the go ahead for the hundreds of boats awaiting passage as well as direction along the 20 mile waterway.   Turkey had the world’s first car ferry, beginning in 1869.  When the work on an underwater tunnel is completed, one can take the train from Europe to China.

Ahmet recognized some of the problems of modern Turkey.  More than 60% of Turkish men smoke.  Tax reform is badly needed with few companies paying any.  Traffic is always bad and often horrible.  “God knows” is the standard response to a query of  how long it will take to get anywhere.

Turkey is known as a secular Muslim Democracy and touted as a model for the countries experiencing the Arab spring.  Ahmet explained that Ataturk, father of Turkey’s democracy, changed the Turkish mind, creating a nation out of the sick Ottoman Empire.  The Turkish flag has a crescent and a star.  When Allah’s name is written in Arabic, it looks like a crescent moon.  The five points of the star represent the five parts of man – head, two legs and two arms – God and Man together on the flag.

In 1961, President Kennedy addressed the American Field Service exchange students on the White House lawn, telling them he hoped they would return with a favorable impression of our democratic way of life, messy though that was.  He acknowledged them as friends of peace and that they will be the future leaders of their countries.  Clearly, Ahmet has done both – been a friend of the United States and a leader in his country.    By endearing all of Plainview High to its first Muslim student and charming American visitors to Turkey, Ahmet has brought the countries closer. The return on his time in Texas couldn’t get much better than that.

P.S. And a special thanks to Google for making the reunion possible!

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Turkey – Cashing in on Its Waters

Ataturk’s Yacht on Bosphorus Strait

With 4454 miles of coastline at the crossroads of Europe and Asia,  Turkey has long been a popular spot for traders and conquerors.  Today, tourists are the newest invited invaders who are taking advantage of this now stable democracy.  On a recent trip, we discovered it has some of the most beautiful waters in the world to be enjoyed on both land and sea.

View of Antalya harbor

View of water and mountains

Antalya, a city of three million, lies on the edge of the Turquoise Coast along Southwest Turkey.    Originally a small town with a safe harbor, Antalya has grown exponentially with the advent of tourist resorts.  The Russian crowd particularly enjoys vacationing here.  On the rooftop terrace of our pension in the old section of town,  we could see the advance of the new condominiums and resorts as the lights extended around the crescent shore.  Despite this boom in building, the city’s perfect view over the waters with the Taurus mountains in the distance has not changed from Roman times.

View of Kas from Plateau above

Further around the coast and directly in the heart of the Turquoise Coast lies Kas, a small fishing village that has managed to stay charming despite the growth in condos in nearby areas.  The British are major visitors here.  We rented a boat for the day with Captain Ergan, a remarkably young (24) and poised Turk, who plans to own a fleet of yachts someday.  We snorkled and kayaked in the clear blue green waters, explored a Crusader castle, and ate fresh seafood on board.  At the end of a very pleasant day,  Ergan passed out cards that encouraged us to evaluate him on Trip Advisor.  Such savvy marketing had already led us to him and would surely bring him even more business.  Someday soon, the other captains will need to figure that one out.

2400 year old Lycian tombs in Dalyan
Beach at mouth of Dalyan River

Up the coast but inland is Dalyan, a German favorite located on the river of the same name.  This is another small town that grew up quickly, thanks to the international airport built nearby in 1981.  It has a rather odd combination of tourist sites that have been brilliantly combined into one daylong boat ride.  We stopped first at Roman ruins of the seaport it once was and then moved down river to the spawning grounds of the large Loggerhead turtles, saved from development by the Turkish government.  A bonus from this ecological decision is a pristine beach with only a snack bar and umbrellas.   Returning to the river, we motored past carved 2400 year old Lycian tombs and stopped at Aqua Mia, some hot springs that provided our first (and last)  mud bath experience.

The ferry boats of Istanbul are another rich source of “on the water” experiences.  In a city of 15 million (give or take five million), only 2 four lane bridges link the European and Asian sides of the city.  This means ferry boats must transport thousands to and from work every day.

Ferry on Marmara Sea, near Istanbul

On a crisp, clear October morning, we boarded a ferry on Buyukada Island for the hour and a half ride to the city.  The skyline of greater Istanbul lay to one side and Princess Islands to the other.  As the boat neared the mouth of the Bosphorus Strait, large tankers lay idle on the Marmara Sea, waiting their turn to sail to the Black Sea.  The famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi  Palace began to take shape.  Small fishing boats and many more ferry boats passed by.   And at our ferry terminal, two enormous cruise ships moored nearby, patiently awaiting the return of their guests who had been released for the day.

Yali or shore mansion 

Our final Turkish water experience centered on a boat ride on the Bosphorus, a place that gives strength to the residents of Istanbul.  Its history plays out on the shores with several Sultan Palaces, many yalis or shore mansions that have been rebuilt or restored in the original Ottoman style, a military high school, Ataturk’s yacht, restaurants, hotels, and of course, minarets.  Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, describes the experience  – “To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea — that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus.”

Most of Turkey is inland, without access to the seas or rivers.  But it is the country’s waters that attract the growing international crowd.  After exploring the shores of Turkey, it is easy to understand why Troy, the Hittities, Romans, Byzantines and Seljuks wanted to control these beautiful waters.  We’re just grateful the Turks have opened their world for all who now want to enjoy it.

On Bosphorus Strait

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